Lawmakers will make another run at abolishing Utah’s death penalty

Utah has not executed a prisoner in more than a dozen years

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, will sponsor a bill in the 2022 session to abolish the death penalty in Utah.

For a third time in recent years, lawmakers will try to abolish the death penalty in Utah.

Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, says he used to support capital punishment but changed his mind after speaking with the sister of Brenda Lafferty, who was murdered by Ron and Dan Lafferty in 1984. Ron, Brenda’s brother-in-law, was sentenced to death for the crime, while Dan got life in prison. Ron Lafferty died in prison in 2019.

“That’s well over 30 years, probably closer to 35 years, where the state of Utah was not able to find justice for this family in terms of what they were led to believe could be accomplished,” Snow said.

Snow says Lafferty’s sister, Sharon Weeks, has become an advocate for abolishing the death penalty because the state was unable to deliver the justice that Ron Lafferty’s sentence promised them.

Snow also said sentencing a guilty person to death costs the state significantly more than life in prison without parole.

A 2012 study concluded a death sentence costs the state $1.6 million more than a life-without-parole sentence. A 2018 study concluded Utah spent $40 million pursuing prosecutions in more than 160 death penalty cases over the previous two decades, and only two of those resulted in a death sentence.

Aggravated murder is the only crime in Utah subject to the penalty of death. Snow’s proposal removes that punishment. Now, aggravated murder is punishable by life in prison, 25 years to life in prison or a new prison sentence of 45 years to life.

Connor Boyack, president of the libertarian Libertas Institute, says the 45-year sentence is a good substitute for the death penalty.

“There’s a big gap between 25-to-life and life without parole, especially if you’re talking about a young offender. You want to respect victims and family members and their concern about someone getting out of prison after 25 years when they committed a really heinous crime. Forty-five years is a nice tool prosecutors can use when the circumstances might make that more appropriate,” Boyack said.

Currently, there are seven prisoners on death row in Utah. The longest has been there for 36 years.

Utah is one of 28 states that authorize capital punishment. The state has not carried out an execution in more than a decade. The last person to be put to death in the state was Ronnie Gardner, who was executed by firing squad. Utah hasn’t imposed the death sentence in more than 13 years.

Utah banned the use of the firing squad in 2004 but revived the practice in 2015 as a backup to lethal injection after pharmaceutical companies limited the use of their products in executions.

This is the third push to get rid of Utah’s use of the death penalty in recent years. In 2016, then-Sen. Steve Urquhart’s proposal passed the Senate by a wide margin but died in the Utah House on the final night without a vote. In 2018, then-Rep. Gage Froerer pulled his bill after it became clear it did not have enough support.

“This is the only penalty where we say to someone that we’re going to do to you what you did to this person. We don’t do that for horrendous assaults or rape or anything else. In a death penalty case, a jury has to decide, does this person live and die of natural causes in prison or do we take their life? It goes to the issue of whether of not the system is capable of making life and death choices,” Snow said.

In 2019, the average time between a death sentence and execution in the United States was 22 years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Gov. Spencer Cox’s office did not respond when asked whether he would support removing the death penalty.