Here’s why Utah death row inmate Taberon Honie says his life should be spared

Honie’s attorneys say he has shown remorse for killing Claudia Benn, adding that his traumatic childhood on Hopi reservation land affected him as an adult.

His mother and father were both torn from their families and sent away to Indian boarding schools; they had never learned how to parent before raising their own children in stark poverty, without electricity or running water.

Neglected, Taberon Honie drank his first beer at age 5 and and was using marijuana by 10; he had several head injuries while young. This traumatic childhood, recounted by Honie’s attorneys in a plea for his life, had a “synergistic effect” with his “extreme intoxication” on the July night in 1998 when he killed Claudia Benn, they argue.

Honie has shown genuine remorse for murdering Benn, they contend in a 48-page petition for the commutation of his death sentence, filed late Friday with the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole. At his sentencing, they note, Benn’s daughter — Honie’s ex-girlfriend, who shares a daughter with him — testified she would be satisfied with a life-without-parole prison term.

And today, the attorneys say, the couple’s 27-year-old daughter wants to tell the parole board that she doesn’t want her father executed.

Unlike in some other states, Utah’s governor cannot commute a death sentence — only the parole board has that power.

“This power is a matter of grace and mercy,” Honie’s attorneys wrote to the board. “Mr. Honie stands before you asking that you grant him mercy and commute his sentence of death to life without parole.”

Asking the Utah parole board for clemency is one of the last steps that Honie, 48, and from the Hopi-Tewa tribal community, can take to try to stop his execution, which is currently scheduled for Aug. 8.

His attorneys on Tuesday also filed a petition asking the Utah Supreme Court to delay his execution and order an evidentiary hearing to explore whether the state can use the never-before-used combination of ketamine, fentanyl and potassium chloride to execute him by lethal injection. The attorneys argued that the drug combination was untested and would likely result in a “torturous death.”

Honie has been on death row for the last 25 years — more than half of his life — as his attorneys appealed his conviction in state and federal courts. A judge last week cleared the way for his execution, ruling that there was no longer any legal reason to delay the execution.

The attorney general’s office now has until Friday to file its response to Honie’s petition. The parole board will then review the documents and decide whether a “substantial issue” has been raised that makes a hearing is necessary.

Jennifer Yim, the administrative director for the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, said the board is not allowed to consider “legal or constitutional issues” that have previously been reviewed by the courts or should have been reviewed by the judicial system.

Yim estimated that it will take the board about two weeks after the state’s attorneys file their response to decide whether to grant a hearing, which would likely happen in mid- to late July. These types of commutation hearings are rare in Utah, she said — the last one happened in 2010 for Ronnie Lee Gardner, but the board denied his petition and he was executed by a firing squad.

The parole board will be able to complete the commutation process for Honie without delaying the currently scheduled execution, Yim said.

These are the key arguments that Honie’s attorneys are making to the parole board in an effort to spare the man’s life.

‘My soul cries out every time when I think of what I’ve done’

Honie has always shown remorse for killing Benn, his attorneys wrote to the parole board. At his 1999 sentencing, he told Benn’s family that he was deeply sorry.

“I regret that I have no excuse for my actions,” he told them. “My heart is sad. My soul cries out every time when I think of what I’ve done. Like I said, if I could change it all, I would. Believe me, I would.”

Honie’s attorney wrote in his commutation petition that the man continues to be remorseful for his actions.

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.

A difficult childhood on a Hopi reservation

Honie grew up in First Mesa, a Hopi reservation in Arizona, according to the petition. His family lived in a two-room home with no running water or electricity, with the family sleeping in one room and another room which included a kitchen.

The small space, his attorneys wrote, made it difficult to escape his parents’ frequent drinking and fighting.

“In a two-room home there is no privacy,” the petition reads, “the children could not escape their parents’ drinking, arguing, and fighting.”

His parents struggled as children themselves, according to the petition, and were sent away to Indian boarding schools when they were young — a common effort at that time to remove indigenous children from their families in order to assimilate them to white culture. They never learned parenting, Honie’s attorneys wrote, by being cared for by their own parents. And they witnessed alcoholism, domestic violence and childhood neglect — all experiences they replicated as parents and passed down to Honie’s generation, according to the petition.

“These multigenerational traumas of his family and his people were inherited by Mr. Honie through ‘genetic, biological, behavioral, psychiatric, and emotional legacy,’” the petition reads. “And, it was not just Mr. Honie who was affected; his siblings have their own struggles, including depression, suicide, legal difficulties, and problems maintaining intimate relationships.”

By the time he was a pre-teen, his attorneys say, Honie and his friends were using cocaine, meth, heroin, marijuana and drinking alcohol — substances he continued to abuse up until the day he was arrested for killing Benn.

The man also suffers from depression, the petition states, and experienced several head traumas throughout his childhood which those around him said altered his personality.

Stereotyping at sentencing

Honie’s attorneys wrote in his petition that “one of the worst stereotypical attitudes about Native Americans reared its head” during his 1999 sentencing, after evidence had been presented to a judge about Honie’s drug and alcohol abuse, and his extreme intoxication when he killed Benn — who had worked as a substance abuse counselor.

The prosecutor, Honie’s attorneys wrote, compared the value of Honie’s life to the value of Benn’s — and noted that Honie “did not murder a drunken Indian in the park” or someone who spent her life “drinking alcohol and puking and walking the streets and shoplifting” at Wal-mart.

“He murdered someone that these people look up to,” the prosecutor said. “He murdered a superstar in the Paiute community.”

It was a judge who ultimately decided to sentence Honie to death. But one juror who decided his guilt later wrote in a declaration that she believed Honie “had no chance” because he is Native American. She wrote that if he were a white man who was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he may have gotten a lighter sentence — making a comparison to Mark Hacking, who in 2005 was sentenced to a 6-years-to-life prison sentence for killing his pregnant wife.

“Mr. Honie got the death penalty because he wasn’t Mormon,” the juror wrote in a declaration. “Mormons don’t put Mormons on death row.”

Productive in prison

Honie has adjusted to living in prison and has been productive for the 25 years he’s been incarcerated, his attorneys told the parole board in his petition. He earned a high school diploma in prison – an effort, his attorneys said, he did for his daughter so she wouldn’t use his lack of education as an excuse to derail her own education. He also learned to be a plumber while incarcerated, and worked at the prison for two years — entrusted with work items like screwdrivers, a razor knife and pliers.

Honie did get into a fight last July, his attorneys noted, but they said he does not have a prison record filled with violent encounters.

They said that if the board grants him clemency, he will continue to “live peaceably” in prison and will not be a threat to other inmates or guards. He remains close with Benn’s daughter, his former girlfriend, and has a relationship with his own daughter and granddaughter.

“Executing Mr. Honie will only create more pain for his family and his daughter,” his attorneys wrote. “Mr. Honie does not have to be executed and is worthy of mercy. A life sentence is appropriate.”