After family members of murder victims testified both for and against a bill that would eliminate the death penalty in Utah, a legislative committee on Wednesday advanced the bill to the full House for consideration.
Kaysville resident Christine Stenquist told lawmakers that after her sister was murdered in Georgia in 2010, her family was asked whether they wanted the death penalty for her killer. In the end, they asked that an execution not be sought, knowing they would spend decades waiting and reliving the crime.
The case instead came to a quick resolution, Stenquist said. Her sister’s killer was sentenced to life in prison. And there were no appeals. No more media attention.
“Our family left the courthouse knowing justice had been served right then and there,” she said. “We were spared decades long of waiting for an execution that haunts families in capital cases. And he serves the punishment anonymously — and rightly so.”
Stenquist urged lawmakers on the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice committee to push forward a bill that would eliminate capital punishment in Utah. But other family members of murder victims made emotional pleas to keep the option of execution available in Utah.
Dave Noriega, whose aunt was one of two women killed during a 1990 Summit County cabin break-in, told the committee that it was “deplorable” to listen to lawmakers say how they believe justice should be served in their cases. His aunt’s killer, Von Lester Taylor, is one of nine men currently on Utah’s death row.
“This isn’t about revenge,” Noriega said. “This isn’t about deterrence. This is about justice, and you will be depriving our family from it.”
A victim’s advocate also expressed concern that if the bill is passed, it would open up a new avenue for appeals for Taylor and the other men on death row.
But bill sponsor Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, said HB379 would not be retroactive — and would not affect current prosecutions. It would prohibit Utah prosecutors from seeking the death penalty after May 8.
Froerer told the committee that when abolishing the death penalty was first considered by Utah lawmakers in 2016, he was opposed to it. He changed his mind after considering the costs of seeking executions, the time spent pursuing cases and little evidence showing that the threat of the death penalty deters crime.
HB379 passed out of committee on a 7-4 vote, and will now move to the full House for consideration.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, had sought to hold the bill in committee for further consideration, expressing concern that things were moving too quickly. A death penalty supporter, Ray said lawmakers instead should focus on another bill, HB70, which would request further study into capital punishment costs in Utah.
He also said that without the death penalty, he fears for the safety of corrections officers and others if there is no deterrence for offenders to kill others while behind bars.
“They are free to kill,” Ray said. “There’s nothing we can do to them.”
Froerer said Tuesday that he expects an uphill battle to persuade Utah’s conservative lawmakers to eliminate the death penalty.
Utah legislators came close to abolishing the death penalty in 2016, but the bill never reached the House floor before the midnight deadline on the last night of session.
At that time, the brother of the last man executed in Utah had protested against the death penalty in the House gallery, displaying large pictures of Ronnie Lee Gardner’s bloodied dead body. Randy Gardner attended Wednesday’s committee hearing, but did not speak directly to lawmakers.
He said after the committee’s vote on Wednesday that he came to the Legislature this year to once again support eliminating the death penalty.
“I’m collateral damage of the death penalty,” he told reporters. “Our family suffers also. We don’t condone what my brother did, and we don’t condone the state doing the same thing.”
Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad in 2010 for the 1984 murder of attorney Michael Burdell during Gardner’s failed escape attempt from the 3rd District courthouse in Salt Lake City.
Of the nine men currently on Utah’s death row, two were originally convicted as long ago as 1985. All but one of the rest were convicted before 1999, although one case was retried in 2015 and resulted in a second capital murder conviction. All nine have ongoing appeals underway in state or federal court.
Legislative analysts in 2012 estimated that a death sentence and years of appeals cost $1.6 million more than a life-without-parole sentence. Another more recent report estimated that Utah and its counties have spent almost $40 million to prosecute the 165 death-penalty-eligible cases that have been filed in the past two decades. Only two cases in that time have resulted in a death sentence.