Utah prosecutors urge lawmakers to pass bill abolishing death penalty

The bill would repeal the death penalty and allow those convicted of aggravated murder the option to spend at least 45 years in jail before being up for parole.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill held a press conference to voice their support for abolishing the death penalty in Utah, Sept. 14, 2021.

Four Utah county attorneys sent a letter to the governor and state lawmakers on Tuesday, urging them to back proposed legislation that would repeal the death penalty in Utah.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan, Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson and Utah County Attorney David Leavitt all signed the letter, which makes the case to abolish death sentences and replace them with the options of life in prison, 45 years to life or 25 years to life.

Currently, only those convicted of aggravated murder can be sentenced to death in Utah. The other options are life in prison or an indeterminate term of 25-years-to-life.

Since 1854, Utah has executed 50 people, most by firing squad, the attorneys wrote. According to the D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, seven people in Utah have been executed since 1977 – a year after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. Neighboring Nevada has executed 12 people since then. Idaho has executed three. Texas has carried out the largest number of death sentences by far since 1976: 572. Virginia and Oklahoma both follow with more than 100.

This shows Utah is “more hesitant” than other states to impose the penalty, the attorneys wrote.

“Even so, the death penalty in Utah today is a permanent and irreversible sentence within an imperfect system,” the letter states. “It fails to deter crime. It retraumatizes victims. It disproportionately applies to minorities. It is expensive. And it makes plea deal negotiations coercive.”

The attorneys pointed out these issues with the death penalty in a news conference on Tuesday.

They said the number of people sentenced to death row who were later exonerated, (the Death Penalty Information Center counts 185 cases since 1973), is a cause for concern because you can’t undo a mistaken execution. They argued executions don’t deter violent crime and cited FBI data that average crime rates are higher in states with the death penalty than those without it.

The prosecutors also said that the death penalty is disproportionately applied to racial and ethnic minorities in Utah. Of the seven people currently on death row in Utah, three are racial and ethnic minorities – that’s 43%. And yet, racial and ethnic minorities only make up about a quarter of Utah’s population, according to 2020 census numbers.

The letter also brings up the 1988 murder of Gordon Church, a 28-year-old college student brutalized and killed because he was gay. The white man convicted of that murder, Lance Conway Wood, was sentenced to life without parole. Michael Anthony Archuleta, who is Hispanic and was believed to have been the primary instigator, was sentenced to death and remains on death row.

The attorneys continued, saying the death penalty brings more trauma than closure for the families of victims because these cases can continue through the appeal process for decades.

“And each appeal means another call to the family, another expectation to appear in court, another question for what will happen, and another reopening of terrible wounds,” the letter states.

They also cited taxpayer costs, who shoulder the costs of a defendants’ health care while in prison, in addition to the cost to appeal.

Lastly, they argued, it gives prosecutors too much power when they use execution as a bargaining chip. In these cases, attorneys often offer defendants a plea deal that puts them in prison for life without the option for parole in exchange for removing the possibility of a death sentence. If they don’t take it, they go to a jury trial with the possibility of being executed if convicted.

“A defendant’s need to bargain for one’s very life in today’s legal culture cannot be described as anything less than inherently coercive,” the letter states. “Accordingly, the death penalty simply gives already powerful prosecutors too much power to avoid trial by threatening death.”

Leavitt announced last week that so long as he’s the Utah County Attorney, he won’t pursue the death penalty in aggravated murder cases.

Because of this stance, he also reversed his decision to try for a death sentence in the ongoing aggravated murder case against Jerrod Baum, accused of killing two teens in late 2017 and hiding their bodies in an abandoned mine shaft.

The families of 18-year-old Riley Powell and 17-year-old Brelynne “Breezy” Otteson have been awaiting Baum’s trial since his arrest in March 2018 and supported prosecutors seeking his execution if convicted. Baum has pleaded not guilty. The case is scheduled for trial in July 2022.

Amanda Davis, Otteson’s aunt, told The Salt Lake Tribune last week that Leavitt was a “coward” for changing his mind on this case, saying death is the only appropriate sentence for Baum, who has spent about half his life behind bars.

“That’s home to him,” Davis said. “That’s giving him what he’s comfortable having.”

Utah Fraternal Order of Police President Brent Jex criticized Leavitt’s decision in a statement on Facebook, saying it “has done nothing but weaken public safety.” He and other officers had hoped Leavitt would seek the death penalty against Matt Hoover, who is charged with aggravated murder in the death of Provo Master Officer Joseph Shinner.

Shinner was fatally shot when Provo and Orem officers tried to arrest Hoover on Jan. 5, 2019, in an Orem shopping center’s parking lot.

Police said Hoover pulled a handgun and fired one shot, hitting Shinners who later died at a hospital. That case is ongoing, and Hoover hasn’t yet entered a plea.

“We all know that when you take away the possibility of execution, the top thing to come off in a plea deal now becomes life without parole,” Jex said, meaning more people convicted of aggravated murder getting sentences that include the possibility of parole.

Olson and Gill told reporters Tuesday that they aren’t making the same promise as Leavitt, but they are trying to achieve the same goals.

“We are asking the legislature to change the law,” Olson said.

Olson does not have any pending death penalty cases. Gill said his office has more than 165 open homicide cases right now but no death penalty cases yet.

Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, and Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, are putting forward the bill in the upcoming legislative session.

This would be the third time in recent years that lawmakers have debated the death penalty.

In 2016, then-Sen. Steve Urquhart’s proposal passed the Senate by a wide margin, but it died in the Utah House on the final night without a vote. In 2018, then-Rep. Gage Froerer pulled his bill after realizing it didn’t have the necessary support to pass.