Suit filed by five death row inmates challenging Utah executions is dismissed

Judge rules the case was filed untimely and that the men failed to “state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A fence line is shown at the Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023. A judge has tossed out a lawsuit challenging the state's death penalty.

A district court judge has dismissed a lawsuit that challenged Utah’s death penalty — nine months after it was filed by five men who were sentenced to death in the state.

The suit argued that the Utah Department of Corrections’ methods to carry out executions — by both lethal intravenous injection and firing squad — violated sections of the Utah Constitution, court documents state. The suit named the Department of Corrections, Gov. Spencer Cox, former Corrections Director Brian Nielsen and other correctional officers as defendants.

Third District Judge Coral Sanchez ruled Friday that the suit was “filed untimely” and that the plaintiffs failed to “state a claim upon which relief can be granted” under the state rules of civil procedure. Sanchez granted the defendants’ dismissal of the case.

The Utah Supreme Court had already affirmed the death sentences of the men who filed the suit — Ralph Menzies, Taberon Honie, Troy Kell, Douglas Carter, and Michael Archuleta — according to court documents.

Menzies was sentenced to death in 1988 after he was convicted in the kidnapping and killing of Maurine Hunsaker, a 26-year-old mother of three. Honie was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to death in 1999, after the killing of Paiute substance abuse counselor Claudia Benn in 1998.

Kell was sentenced to death in 1996 after he stabbed another inmate to death at a Gunnison prison while serving time for the 1986 murder of a Canadian tourist.

Carter was sent to death row after his conviction in the 1985 of killing Eva Olesen, the aunt of the then-Provo police chief. But in November 2022, 4th District Judge Derek P. Pullan vacated the conviction, ruling that there was misconduct by Provo police and prosecutors.

The conviction was not immediately vacated, since state prosecutors moved to appeal Pullan’s ruling, court documents state. Carter filed a motion to lift the stay of his vacated conviction in May, which would have allowed for the court to move forward with conditions for his release from prison. That motion was denied in September, according to the docket.

Archuleta has been on Utah’s death row since his December 1989 conviction for the murder of Gordon Ray Church, a student at what is now Southern Utah University.

In Friday’s ruling, Sanchez wrote that the suit was untimely since the plaintiffs had four years — until 2014 — to challenge the 2010 execution protocol upon which their claims were based.

Sanchez also ruled that the men had not “alleged sufficient facts” that Utah’s execution methods would “unduly increase the risk of harm to a prisoner” compared with other available methods of execution, court documents state. The judge wrote that previous cases also held that the men did not have a constitutional right to access further information about the specific methods of execution.

The five men have 21 days to file a motion to amend the complaint, but if no motion is filed by Jan. 12, the suit will be dismissed without prejudice, court documents state.