Utah County Attorney David Leavitt announced Wednesday that he will never again seek the death penalty.
He is the first elected prosecutor in Utah to do so. His announcement came on the same day two state lawmakers said they will make another run at abolishing the death penalty in Utah.
This is a shift for Leavitt. Two years ago, he announced he would seek the death penalty against a man accused of killing two teens and dropping their bodies in a mine shaft in 2017. The top prosecutor said Wednesday that he will now file court papers saying he won’t seek Jarrod Baum’s execution.
Leavitt said Wednesday that he spent months deciding whether to bring the death penalty in that case.
“I knew, at least academically, that deciding to seek the death penalty would require huge taxpayer resources,” he said, “both for the prosecution and for the defense, not to mention the costs of a decades-long appeals process if the defendant was found guilty.”
Leavitt seemed conflicted about his decision at that time, saying at a news conference that prosecutors had too much power to seek the ultimate penalty.
“I am going to give power back to people, in the form of juries, to decide,” he said in 2019. “It is the jury’s role to determine the guilt or innocence of this alleged killer. If they find him guilty, then it is the jury’s role to decide whether he should receive the death penalty or not.”
He said Wednesday that while the decision seemed right at the time, he is convinced now that the death penalty’s “costs far outweigh its benefits to the community as a whole.”
Leavitt said seeking the death penalty in Baum’s case has cost an “enormous expenditure” of time and taxpayer dollars.
“All of what we’ve spent, and more, would be worth it if it would prevent another senseless murder from occurring. But it doesn’t and it won’t,” he said. “Pretending that the death penalty will somehow curb crime is simply a lie. The answer to preventing these types of horrible crimes is in education and prevention before they occur.”
The families of the two teens killed, 18-year-old Riley Powell and 17-year-old Brelynne “Breezy” Otteson, had supported Leavitt’s decision to seek Baum’s execution in 2019.
Leavitt told the families his decision on Wednesday. Otteson’s aunt, Amanda Davis, said she cried, telling Leavitt, “There’s a lot that I could say, but I’m just going to say this: I think you’re a coward.”
Davis said the death penalty is the only sentence that makes sense for Baum, who at 44 has spent almost half of his life behind bars. If a jury sends him back to prison, even without the possibility of parole, Davis said that won’t be punishment for Baum.
“That’s home to him,” Davis said. “That’s giving him what he’s comfortable having.”
She questioned Leavitt’s reasoning, saying if cost was a concern, the taxpayers had already spent money on the case over the past three years to seek the death penalty and it would be wasteful to stop now.
The news was disheartening, but Davis said the family would keep advocating for the teens, just like they didn’t stop searching for them in Utah’s vast west desert when they disappeared in late 2017.
“We fought to get where we’re at,” she said, “and we’re going to continue to fight for what’s within our power.”
The death penalty in Utah is often threatened in aggravated murder cases but is rarely carried out. It has been more than a decade since Utah prosecutors have secured a death penalty conviction, and cases more often resolve with a plea deal that takes the possibility of execution off the table.
It is unclear whether other elected prosecutors are ready to give up the death penalty as well. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said Wednesday that it was an “important issue” that his office has been working on and he is encouraged that legislators will consider a bill next session.
“We will have more to say in the coming weeks,” he said.
Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings declined to comment Wednesday. Weber County Attorney Christopher Allred — whose office is currently litigating three death penalty cases — did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Currently, there are seven prisoners on death row. The longest has been there for 36 years. None has an execution date.
The last execution in Utah was carried out in 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner was killed by firing squad for the 1984 murder of attorney Michael Burdell during Gardner’s failed escape attempt from a Salt Lake City courthouse.
Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, and Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said Wednesday that they will bring a bill to January’s legislative session that would eliminate capital punishment once and for all.
They are proposing that prosecutors be given an extra option — a 45-year-to-life prison term — instead of the death penalty in aggravated murder cases. Currently, aggravated murder carries the possible penalties of the death penalty, life in prison or an indeterminate term of 25-years-to-life.
This will be the third time in recent years that lawmakers will debate the death penalty. In 2016, then-Sen. Steve Urquhart’s proposal passed the Senate by a wide margin but died in the Utah House on the final night without a vote. In 2018, then-Rep. Gage Froerer pulled his bill after it became clear it did not have h support.