Utah set to execute first death row inmate since 2010 this summer

Taberon Honie, 48, is expected to be executed via lethal injection.

(Fox13) Taberon Honie enters a Fifth District courtroom in Cedar City, Monday, June 10, 2024. A judge signed an execution warrant for Honie, scheduling an execution for Aug. 8, 2024. Honie was sentenced in 1999 for the murder of the mother of his ex-girlfriend.

A district court judge ruled Monday that there is no legal reason to continue a stay on 48-year-old Taberon Honie’s death sentence, and officials are now planning for an execution this summer.

Honie has been on death row for the last 25 years.

From his Cedar City courtroom Monday, 5th District Judge Jeffrey C. Wilcox heard more than an hour’s worth of arguments from attorneys opposing and supporting the lifting of the stay of execution. Ultimately, he sided with prosecutors in signing the death warrant.

“There are no legal reasons agains the judgment of death,” Wilcox said. “The law requires me to sign both the warrant of execution and an order of delivery of the warrant of execution.”

The execution is scheduled for Aug. 8. Honie is expected to be killed by lethal injection at the Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City.

(Utah Department of Corrections) A table inside the execution chamber at the Utah State Correctional Facility.

Honie’s defense attorney, Eric Zuckerman, said Monday he would appeal the decision, which he noted came one business day after the state “announced a new, experimental lethal injection drug combination” of ketamine, fentanyl and potassium chloride.

He said the state has not provided information about these drugs, including the dosage Honie would be given, and that officials were not planning to update the state’s execution protocols to include these new drugs, “making it the only jurisdiction to move forward with an execution without accurate written procedures.”

“Mr. Honie’s execution should not go forward until the Utah courts have had a full opportunity to review and rule on the merits of the constitutional challenge to these unprecedented procedures,” he said.

A representative for the attorney general’s office did not return The Salt Lake Tribune’s request for comment Monday afternoon.

The state’s Department of Corrections on Friday announced it would use a lethal injection cocktail, choosing ketamine, fentanyl and potassium chloride, “on the recommendation of medical professionals,” according to a news release.

Nebraska has used fentanyl in an execution, but no states have used ketamine, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The death of Claudia Benn

Honie was convicted and sentenced in 1999 for the murder of 49-year-old Claudia Benn, a substance abuse counselor and the mother of his ex-girlfriend, with whom he had a daughter.

On July 9, 1998, Honie called his ex-girlfriend and demanded she visit him, threatening to kill her family if she refused. Later that evening, sometime before midnight, Honie took a cab to Benn’s house, where she was watching her three grandchildren. He broke the door in with a rock and then beat, bit, stabbed and sexually assaulted Benn, court documents state.

Police arrived after a neighbor called reporting a gunshot. Honie, who was intoxicated, walked outside covered in blood and told officers, “I stabbed her. I killed her with a knife.”

Officers found Benn’s three grandchildren inside the home. One child, documents state, was covered in blood.

Honie has made several unsuccessful attempts to appeal his conviction, including arguing that a better defense could saved him from the death penalty, that a prosecutor made a racist comment at the trial, that it wasn’t clear if Benn was alive when she was sexually assaulted (the aggravating factor that resulted in the option for the death penalty) and that the death penalty is unconstitutional.

(Utah Department of Corrections) Taberon Honie in 2001.

Execution scheduled

The goal of Monday’s hearing was to suss out any legal reasons why Honie’s stay of execution should not be lifted.

Daniel Boyer, a prosecutor in the attorney general’s office, argued there was no legal reason the sentencing should not move forward.

Utah law gives judges a narrow, procedural role in choosing whether or not to sign an execution warrant, he said. Honie has exhausted all appeals to his conviction and sentence, and, thus, Boyer said, the law compels Wilcox to sign the execution warrant.

Zuckerman argued that an extraordinary writ he filed last week with the Utah Supreme Court should qualify under Utah law as a reason to keep the stay in place. In that petition, he argued Utah’s methods of execution were unconstitutional and unknown and should be scrutinized in court before Honie is executed.

He also has appealed the dismissal of a lawsuit — filed on behalf of Honie and death row inmates Ralph Menzies, Troy Kell, Douglas Carter and Michael Archuleta — challenging the constitutionality of Utah’s two methods of execution, lethal injection and a firing squad. That appeal is pending.

Boyer acknowledged the ongoing cases related to Honie, but said none of them met the limited threshold outlined in Utah law for a continued stay on a death penalty case. Wilcox, in making his decision, outlined those qualifying conditions as pending criminal appeals, petitions for post-conviction relief or habeas corpus (or wrongful imprisonment) proceedings.

Zuckerman told Wilcox that if a warrant were signed Monday, it was be defective because Honie hadn’t had time to make an informed choice on his method of execution.

(Fox13) Taberon Honie listens to a hearing in Fifth District Court in Cedar City, Monday, June 10, 2024. A judge signed an execution warrant for Honie, scheduling an execution for Aug. 8, 2024. Honie was sentenced in 1999 for the murder of the mother of his ex-girlfriend.

Prosecutors did not agree, saying that by declining to make a choice during his 1999 sentencing, Honie had already chosen lethal injection by default and did not need any more time (although they said at Monday’s hearing that they would let him choose a method). But Zuckerman countered that the drugs used in the lethal injection protocol in 1999 were no longer the same.

“So any choices he could have made at the time of sentencing would no longer be valid,” Zuckerman said.

Zuckerman asked that if Wilcox didn’t find his argument for an automatic stay convincing, that the judge give his team three more months to consider the execution methods before it held another execution warrant hearing.

Wilcox was not persuaded, scheduling the execution 59 days out from Monday’s hearing.

When asked for Honie’s choice of execution method, Zuckerman said, “Mr. Honie does not have sufficient information to make an informed choice.” Wilcox then ruled the death sentence would be carried out using lethal injection.

Transparency about the process

Before attorneys battled over the execution warrant on Monday, they first clashed over the outcome of the defense’s subpoena for execution protocol documents. The department turned over many of those documents Friday.

“So they responded, and they said what those substances were. Do you require more?” Wilcox asked. “Do you believe your client is entitled to more?”

Zuckerman did, saying his client had a right to know the dosages of drugs, the order they would be injected and more information about the medical professional who signed off on their usage. He said the medical professional, identified as a pharmacist “licensed in the United States,” would not legally allowed to prescribe such drugs in Utah.

He also argued that corrections officials should update the execution protocols to provide specific information about the new drugs.

“There is not a single state in this country that has ever conducted an execution without an updated protocol listing the drugs that they are going to use,” he said. “Yet, that seems to be the [Department of Corrections’] plan.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City, Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.

Bokovoy, the department’s attorney, contended it did not need to update the protocols — which include granular details about the quantity of syringes, their contents and the order they are used — because Utah law states lethal injections can be carried out with “a lethal quantity of sodium thiopental or other equally or more effective substance sufficient to cause death.”

“That’s what we have here,” Bokovoy said. “There’s no reason to update it, no need to update.”

Wilcox ordered that Zuckerman limit the time frame of his information request and that corrections officials release all relevant documents in the next two weeks — on a rolling basis to avoid a “document dump.”

The attorney general’s office also sought an execution warrant for Ralph Menzies this year. That process stalled after Zuckerman, who is also Menzies’ attorney, argued the death row inmate has dementia and cannot be executed because he isn’t competent. An evidentiary hearing about Menzies’ mental state is scheduled for November.

Utah last executed a prisoner in 2010, when a firing squad killed Ronnie Lee Gardner.