A bill to end the death penalty in Utah met early failure Monday evening after nearly a dozen family members whose loved ones were brutally killed tearfully pleaded with lawmakers to preserve capital punishment. It was the only way, the families said, there would be justice.
Families lined the large House committee room, each taking their turn to tell legislators of the horrific ways their sisters, daughters and children had died — and how executing the men who killed them would be the just punishment.
There were some whose cases have ended in the death penalty, but who are still waiting for an execution. Like Matt Hunsaker, who held a framed photo of his mother, Maurine, and asked lawmakers if they wanted to give her killer a chance at parole by passing the bill. That man, Ralph Menzies, has been on death row for 34 years.
“I will stand by this fight the whole time,” he said. “100 percent.”
Others were like the families of 18-year-old Riley Powell and 17-year-old Brelynne “Breezy” Otteson, who were killed in 2017 and whose bodies dropped down a mine shaft. They felt robbed of that chance of justice after the Utah County Attorney announced last September that he would no longer seek the death penalty in any case, including theirs.
And then there was the family of 5-year-old Elizabeth “Lizzy” Shelley whose uncle admitted to kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing the girl in 2019. Her killer, Alex Whipple, told police where to find the girl’s body in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table.
“There are monsters in the world that should never be out of prison,” said Lizzy’s mother, Jessica Black. “Having the death penalty allowed us to find our daughter and put the monster in prison for the rest of his life.”
The bill, HB147, was debated for nearly three hours Monday evening before the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, but ultimately failed on a 5-6 vote.
Those supporting the bill argued that the death penalty was broken. Executions are expensive, ineffective and the appeals process takes too long, they argued. And the risk that the government could kill an innocent person, they said, was too high.
But several representatives who voted the bill down on Monday questioned whether the state should focus instead on ways to speed up appeals or fix other problems with the process.
“If there is a problem, if the death penalty is broken, what are we doing to try to do fix it?” asked Rep. Jefferson Burton, a Spanish Fork Republican. “What do we try to do to fix the system? And I’m not convinced that we’ve tried to do that yet.”
This is the third time the death penalty has been debated among Utah legislators in recent years, and appeared to have more momentum than in years past. But the Monday vote was the earliest in the legislative process it has failed in nearly a decade.
The bill’s sponsors tried to offer a new alternative in aggravated murder cases, but that did not appear to sway the committee. The legislation would have replaced the death penalty with a new option: a 45-year-to-life prison term.
Aggravated murder currently carries the possible penalties of capital punishment, life in prison or an indeterminate sentence of 25 years-to-life. In that scenario, the parole board decides how long someone is incarcerated or if they are ever granted parole.
“Given the amount of time devoted to this issue, I would be lying if I didn’t say I was disappointed,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara. “It’s always been a little bit of a tough issue.”
Snow used to be in favor of the death penalty. But he has changed his mind in recent years after talking to Sharon Wright Weeks, whose sister, Brenda Lafferty, and baby niece, Erica, were killed in 1984.
Weeks and Snow met in 2017, two years before one of Brenda’s killers, Ron Lafferty, died of natural causes after sitting on death row for 35 years.
Weeks spoke in favor of abolishing the death penalty Monday evening, tearfully telling the committee that it had been an empty promise for her family.
While sitting in a federal courtroom in 2013, it occurred to her that after decades of waiting her family may never see Ron Lafferty executed.
“The death penalty was like a neon light shining,” she said. “And I was focused on receiving it. I knew that I had to have it in order to move forward, as was explained to us by the state.”
Brothers 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.
Weeks told legislators that she hardly gave a second thought to Dan Lafferty as he sat in prison these last 35 years. But it was different with his brother.
“I thought of Ron Lafferty and the death penalty almost every single day of my life,” she said. “It eclipses everything you do.”