If we want to improve our justice system, Utah should get rid of capital punishment, Robert Gehrke writes

Our current system is inefficient, arbitrary and re-victimizes family members who have suffered enough.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

In more than 30 years as a prosecutor, both in Salt Lake County and for the state, Creighton Horton worked on roughly a dozen capital murder cases, helping to put some of Utah’s most infamous killers on death row.

He worked on the prosecutions of Joseph Paul Franklin, Arthur Gary Bishop and Ron Lafferty, among others.

So, it’s safe to say he has as much, if not more up-close, firsthand experience with our state’s system of capital punishment than anyone in the state — and he doesn’t like what he has seen.

“I came to believe the best outcome for a family that wanted the death penalty — the most humane outcome whether they would like it or not at the moment — is to have the jury come back and say ‘life without parole,’” Horton, who has retired and now lives in Oregon, told me last week.

That’s because a death sentence is far from the last word. What follows are years, decades of appeals, each time dragging the survivors through the ordeal of reliving the horrific acts that befell their loved ones and facing the monsters who perpetrated them.

A life sentence, he said, means the families “aren’t going to be living what can be a sort of hell for decades.”

“We make a counterfeit promise … when we tell the victims’ family members we’re going to get them justice when we get the death penalty,” he said. “They’ll never have the green light to move on and have closure.”

Since Mormon settlers garroted an Indigenous man named Patsowits in 1850, 49 men have been beheaded, hanged, shot and injected with a lethal cocktail at the hands of the state, an exercise of biblical “justice” and “blood atonement.”

Right now there are seven condemned men on Utah’s death row who have spent, on average 29½ years awaiting their execution. And that means 29½ years that the families of the people they killed have been waiting as well.

They could be the last — they should be the last — sentenced to that fate. And they might be, if two Republicans, Rep. Lowry Snow of Santa Clara and Sen. Dan McCay of Riverton, succeed in passing legislation to do away with the death penalty in the state.

Instead, judges and juries would have the option of imposing a sentence of 45 years to life in the most heinous cases, a step up from the current 25-to-life sentence — which also would give prosecutors leverage when they are negotiating plea bargains.

“We haven’t been very good,” Snow said last week, “at bringing justice to those families, in many cases who are nearing death or maybe died before they can see the perpetrators who victimized their families put to death.”

Snow said his view on the death penalty shifted, in part, in his discussions with a constituent, Sharon Wright Weeks, who is the sister of Brenda Lafferty. In 1984, Lafferty’s throat was slashed, as was her infant daughter, by Ron and Dan Lafferty, who believed they had been instructed by God to commit the murder.

Dan Lafferty was sentenced to life in prison for his role, while Ron was sentenced to death, only to drag out his appeals for decades until he died of natural causes in 2019.

In the process, Weeks saw her family traumatized again and again.

The burden on the victims’ families is just one of many reasons for Utah to join 22 other states that no longer use the option of the death penalty.

Back in 1999, I was a witness at the execution of Joseph Mitchell Parsons, put to death for the fatal stabbing of Richard Ernest, who had picked up the hitchhiking Parsons.

It was a brutal crime, to be sure, and I didn’t doubt Parsons’ guilt. But all murders are brutal. What separated Parsons’ crime from scores of others we read about, but do not result in the death penalty?

It appeared to be a combination of geography — a crime committed in a conservative part of the state — and an ambitious tough-on-crime prosecutor.

Horton said he saw it several times during his career, when, given the facts of the case, it would have made sense to negotiate a plea, but a county attorney was up for reelection and needed to make a splash.

Those are not factors that should come into play when the state decides who lives or dies but too often they do.

Then there is the risk of convicting an innocent person, which does happen. Since 1973, 185 death row inmates in the U.S. have seen their wrongful convictions overturned, according to data tracked by the Death Penalty Information Center.

And there’s the cost: Over a 20-year period, Snow said, Utah spent $40 million on death penalty cases, with only two executions carried out — Parsons and Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010.

The push for repeal won’t be easy. Capital punishment has been ingrained in our culture for too long. But the arguments for ending the practice are compelling, and this effort by Snow and McCay, if they succeed, has the potential to make our justice system a little more just.

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