This unlikely pair changed some leaders’ minds about ending Utah’s death penalty. Will it be enough?

A bill to end capital punishment will soon be debated among Utah legislators.

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Sharon Wright Weeks wanted Ron Lafferty dead for decades.

The man sat on death row for 35 years, convicted of brutally killing her older sister and baby niece. But when Lafferty died of natural causes two years ago, it wasn’t at all like Weeks thought it would be.

“It’s just a big, fat lie,” she said of the promise that the death penalty would bring her family justice.

That promise felt empty. Counterfeit. She had spent year after year putting her faith in capital punishment — all as another Utahn was haunted by it.

Randy Gardner’s brother, Ronnie Lee Gardner, was executed in 2010 — the last person to be killed by firing squad in the state, more than two decades after he was convicted of killing a defense attorney during a courthouse escape attempt. Randy Gardner struggled to understand how the government could take his brother’s life in such a violent way.

For decades, he and Weeks lived on opposite sides of the criminal justice system — that of a victim’s family, and of a killer’s — but both are now advocating for the same end: abolishing the death penalty in Utah.

This legislative session will mark the third time in recent years that state lawmakers intend to debate ending capital punishment. There’s more momentum this year than ever before, with several elected prosecutors saying they support stopping executions.

Yet, it’s no done deal. Legislative leadership have spoken in favor of keeping the death penalty, with backing from law enforcement and the Utah attorney general’s office.

Weeks and Gardner hope their experiences can change lawmakers’ minds.

A sister’s pain

“We will never get justice.”

The words creep into Weeks’ mind often, at times when she wishes they wouldn’t. Sometimes, it feels like the thought eclipses everything else. It seeps in during life’s milestones, like when she’s at a wedding, or on the days her daughters were born. But it also comes during everyday moments, like the middle of a PTA meeting.

The thought came on the last day her own mother was alive. It was 2016, more than three decades after her sister, Brenda Lafferty, was murdered. Brenda’s killer, Ron Lafferty was still alive at the time, and nowhere near an execution date.

Weeks spent the whole day with her mom, lovingly rubbing lotion on her hands and feet. She talked to her and sang to her.

Shortly after her mother took her last breath, the thought crept in.

“My mom did not receive full justice.”

“I was so mad at myself,” Weeks said, “for even allowing that thought to pop into my head and spoil such a beautiful moment.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sharon Wright Weeks looks through family photos and newspaper clippings in her home, Feb. 8, 2022, that she has collected in the years since her sister Brenda Wright Lafferty and 15-month old daughter, Erica, were murdered. Weeks was once a supporter of the death sentence imposed on one of her sister's killers, but now is a leading proponent against the death penalty.

For Brenda Lafferty’s family, wrestling with what justice is — and whether the death penalty could deliver it — has been a 35-year journey that started when Brenda and her 15-month-old child, Erica, were brutally killed by brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty in 1984.

According to court documents, the brothers blamed Brenda for helping Ron Lafferty’s wife leave him with their six children.

Brenda was the brothers’ sister-in-law, and they also were upset, according to trial testimony, that Brenda opposed her husband, their brother, joining their polygamous cult, called School of the Prophets.

Ron and Dan Lafferty forced their way into Brenda Lafferty’s home on July 24, 1984, where they beat her, strangled her with a vacuum cord and slit her throat, court documents say. Dan Lafferty then cut Erica’s throat.

The two brothers were tried separately. One jury gave Dan Lafferty two life prison sentences. The other sentenced Ron Lafferty to death.

“We accepted the two life sentences as justice,” Weeks recalled. “And we accepted the death penalty as justice.”

But Ron Lafferty’s conviction was overturned, after the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the wrong standards had been used to evaluate his mental competency.

(AP) Ron Lafferty, left, and his brother, Dan, in 1984.

Weeks was there at his second trial, in 1996. She was then 26 years old, and six months pregnant with a boy. She didn’t realize how much the stress of listening to the long days of testimony was affecting her, and soon after, she had a miscarriage.

“That was one of the personal costs that I have paid for the state of Utah to have a death penalty,” she said. “My life could have been totally — I could have had a son. I love my daughters. [But] I would have had a son.”

As Weeks looks back, she can recount what the death penalty has taken from her. That peaceful last moment with her mother. The chance to have a son.

But the promise of justice never delivered, after Ron Lafferty died in 2019 of natural causes. He was 78.

Now, Weeks hopes that sharing her perspective can help change policy, and save another family from the painful, decades-long journey hers has been through.

“Everything that I am saying is from my soul,” she said, “to warn the next family: There is nothing in it for us.”

A brother’s trauma

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Randy Gardner wears his brother Ronnie Lee Gardner's prison jumpsuit, Feb. 2, 2022. He wears it on occasion to protests around the country, advocating to abolish the death penalty.

Randy Gardner doesn’t call himself a victim. Instead, he considers himself collateral damage of Utah’s death penalty.

His brother was the last person in Utah — and the U.S. — to be executed by firing squad in 2010.

Gardner felt lost after his brother’s death. His phone had stopped ringing every morning, with Ronnie on the other end. His family was struggling to reconcile with the fact that his brother had been violently killed by the government.

I can’t believe they did this,” he would often think.

And then there were the nightmares. He would dream that his mother was executed while sitting in her wheelchair, asking him “why” as he was the one to pull the trigger. He dreamed, at times, that his children were executing him.

“I don’t want anyone to feel like this,” he remembered thinking.

His brother had been sentenced to die after he murdered attorney Michael Burdell during a failed escape attempt from a Salt Lake City courthouse in 1984. He had already been awaiting trial for killing another man, Melvyn Otterstrom, in a Salt Lake City bar during a robbery gone wrong.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Ronnie Lee Gardner is handcuffed in 1984 after trying to escape from the Salt Lake County Courthouse, killing an attorney and wounding a bailiff in the process.

Randy Gardner doesn’t think that what his brother did was right, nor does he think he was innocent.

But for a long time, the death penalty didn’t feel real to Randy Gardner. His brother’s appeals took 25 years, with countless hearings at courthouses that often felt more like a game than seeking justice.

“Who’s going to win this battle?” he recalled. “It was like a card game. I remember the prosecutors laughing about it in the elevators.”

It wasn’t until those minutes just before his brother was taken to the execution chamber, in their final visit at the prison, that it hit him. His brother was about to be shot and killed.

“I just thought Ronnie would die in prison,” he said. “I knew he had cancer. I would have much rather, of course, had him die that way. Although, it wouldn’t have brought out the fighter in me.”

And since then, Randy Gardner has fought.

He’s been arrested three times while protesting the death penalty in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, while wearing his brother’s bright orange prison jumpsuit emblazoned with the words “DEATH ROW” written in thick black marker.

He was detained at the Utah Capitol six years ago, when legislators let a bill to end the death penalty die on the last night without a debate. He was so frustrated, he recalled, he called a family member who worked at a copy shop and printed off large pictures of his brother’s bloodied body taken during an autopsy. He held them up in the House gallery as he shouted for the lawmakers’ attention. Then he was put in handcuffs.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Randy Gardner is removed from the Utah House gallery in 2016. In protest of a death penalty bill, Gardner showed a banner of photographs depicting his brother after he was executed by firing squad.

But this year, Randy Gardner said he wants to lay low. He isn’t planning on making a scene on Capitol Hill. He’s hopeful.

The difference this year, he said, could be Weeks’ advocacy.

“She’s somebody close to home,” he said.

Utah’s death penalty debate

Her voice has already changed the mind of one Utah legislator: The death penalty repeal bill’s sponsor, Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara.

They met in 2017, two years before Ron Lafferty died. Weeks told him about the painful journey her family had been on up to that point.

“I was hearing a story from a perspective I had never heard,” he said. “All of the victims that I had heard from family members were very adamant about keeping the death penalty. Hers was a different story.”

Snow, in previous years, had voted in favor of keeping the death penalty. But now he’s working to end it, along with Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, in 2017. Snow is currently sponsoring a bill that would eliminate the death penalty in Utah.

Efforts to eliminate executions have previously been an uphill battle among Utah’s 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.

This year, Snow and McCay are offering more than just abolishment: They are proposing that prosecutors be given a new option — a 45-year-to-life prison term — instead of the death penalty in aggravated murder cases. Currently, aggravated murder carries the possible penalties of the death penalty, life in prison or an indeterminate term of 25-years-to-life.

But similar challenges are expected this year. Leaders within the House of Representatives have already said they don’t support Snow’s efforts, and the Utah attorney general’s office has publicly taken a stance for the first time.

“Our position is that we want to keep the penalty for the worst of the worst,” said Tom Brunker, a prosecutor in the office who has handled death penalty appeals for years.

Brunker said the penalty still has a place for people like Ronnie Lee Gardner, who continued to pose a threat even after he was incarcerated for killing someone. And he said if the death penalty is repealed, it will open a new set of appeals for the seven men currently on Utah’s death row.

Others argue that the death penalty can be used by prosecutors as a sort of bargaining chip to get a defendant to plead guilty or give up information about the location of a body.

Rep. Casey Snyder, R-Paradise, said that happened in his district nearly three years ago, after a man pleaded guilty to kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing his 5-year-old niece, Elizabeth “Lizzy” Shelly. The suspect, Alex Whipple, disclosed to police where he hid her body, according to Snyder, in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table.

Before that, the community had spent days looking for the child. Snyder was among the searchers, motivated to find her as he thought of his own daughter, who was Lizzy’s age.

“This dispute has probably impacted me more than any other debate, and we haven’t even had it yet,” Snyder said. “This thing is emotionally draining, because every time we talk about it, I think of that little girl.”

But Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, who supports repealing the death penalty, said prosecutors should be able to prove their case without hanging the threat of an execution over someone’s head.

“For us to say we want to use it as a bargaining chip, to coerce an outcome, is an insult to the integrity of the criminal justice system and the legitimacy to what we claim to have,” he said.

Snyder said he won’t support Snow’s legislation, and he questions why the debate is happening again after repeal efforts were struck down in 2016 and 2018. What’s changed, he wonders?

No one else in Utah has been sentenced to death since then. No one has been executed.

But Snow said public support of the death penalty has waned in the last few years. And there has been change.

”I have changed,” Snow said. “And I believe some of my colleagues are taking that additional look, that introspection. I absolutely, without reservation, believe it is the right policy for our state.”

It’s been more than a decade since anyone in Utah has been sentenced to death, and a dozen years since state officials last carried out the death penalty.

Seven men, however, all have spent at least 20 years on death row awaiting execution. All are currently in various appeals in their cases, and none have an execution date. They are:

Douglas Stewart Carter

Age: 66

Time spent on death row: 36 years

Chosen method of execution: He did not chose, and authorities plan to kill him with lethal injection.

Ralph Leroy Menzies

Age: 63

Time spent on death row: 34 years

Chosen method of execution: Firing squad.

Michael Anthony Archuleta

Age: 59

Time spent on death row: 32 years

Chosen method of execution: He did not choose a method, and authorities plan to use lethal injection.

Von Lester Taylor

Age: 56

Time spent on death row: 30 years

Chosen method of execution: Lethal injection.

Douglas Anderson Lovell

Age: 64

Time spent of death row: 28 years

Chosen method of execution: Lethal injection.

Troy Michael Kell

Age: 53

Time spent of death row: 25 years

Chosen method of execution: Firing squad.

Taberon Dave Honie

Age: 46

Time spent of death row: 22 years

Chosen method of execution: Unspecified.