Utah County commissioners vote to support ending the death penalty

County officials urge ending capital punishment as state legislators prepare to debate it once again.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah County Commission Chair Bill Lee, right, starts a commission meeting Tuesday, Dec. 12 in Provo. On Wednesday, two of three Utah County commissioners, including Lee, said they want to do away with the death penalty, passing a resolution that urges state lawmakers to do so in the upcoming legislative session.

Provo • They say it’s broken. That it doesn’t stop crime.

And it’s expensive — so much so, the Utah County Commission says it’s having a hard time budgeting for it.

For those reasons and more, two of three county commissioners on Wednesday said they want to do away with the death penalty. Together, they passed a resolution that urges state lawmakers to do so in the upcoming legislative session — the latest in a growing chorus of local officials who support a movement to end capital punishment in Utah.

“It’s difficult for us to prosecute. We don’t have the expertise at the county level; no county in the state does,” commissioner Amelia Powers Gardner said. “We can’t budget for it.”

“This sends a message to the state Legislature that the way we handle egregious murders in our state is not working,” she continued.

The Wednesday resolution marked the first time a county commission in Utah has publicly asked for the death penalty to be eliminated. Powers Gardner and commissioner Bill Lee want other counties to follow their lead.

“We’re hopeful,” Lee said. “It’s not like we’re in this boat by ourselves. We’re all in this together, right?”

But there is some division. Commissioner Thomas Sakievich on Wednesday opposed the resolution, saying he felt it was important to keep the death penalty as an option if a homicide is egregious enough to warrant it. And Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith spoke out against the resolution during the meeting.

“I’m troubled when we look at justice from a budget,” Smith said. “I don’t think it’s right for Utah County to just close the door on a law that’s on the books.”

Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, and Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, announced in September that they will sponsor a bill to get rid of capital punishment in the next legislative session, which starts in January.

It will mark the third time in recent years that Utah legislators have debated the death penalty. It’s previously been an uphill battle among predominantly conservative, Republican state lawmakers, many of whom were swayed to keep it in place after emotional committee hearings, where family members of those brutally killed tearfully pled to keep it as an option.

But this year may be different. There’s already more momentum behind this bill than previous efforts, and its sponsors say they are considering an extra option for prosecutors: A possible 45-year-to-life sentence, which advocates hope will be an acceptable alternative to execution.

Currently in Utah, someone convicted of aggravated murder faces three possible penalties: death, life without the possibility of parole or a 25-year-to-life sentence.

The Utah County Commission’s new resolution supports the position taken by Utah County Attorney David Leavitt. He announced last month that he will no longer seek the death penalty, including in a high-profile homicide case that his office is currently prosecuting.

Officials said in that case, the county has already paid nearly $4 million over the last two years for prosecutors, investigators and public defenders. And there hasn’t been a trial yet.

Leavitt also is not seeking the death penalty for a defendant accused of shooting and killing a Provo police officer in 2019, though the case meets eligibility requirements for it.

Following his announcement last month, Leavitt and three other county attorneys — Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan and Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson — sent a letter to Utah legislators and the governor also asking them to back the proposed death penalty legislation. They have not received any immediate support.

Gov. Spencer Cox said last month he hasn’t taken a position, but added that he’s reevaluating his previous support of the death penalty. Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson expressed some skepticism about voting to repeal it.

“This is something I’m probably not going to wade into a whole lot, but probably won’t support changing,” Wilson said Wednesday. “I’ll reserve judgment until I see the language of the bill.”

— Tribune reporter Bryan Schott contributed to this report.