We’ve advocated against the death penalty multiple times just in the past year. Besides the moral implications of possibly putting an innocent man to death, or even a guilty man, government error could also affect outcomes.
Even worse than malfeasance, though, would be actual bad faith. Prosecutorial misconduct, or bad faith from a state agency, compounds the difficulty in condemning a defendant to death.
And that’s just what may have happened recently in Sanpete County. Stephen Douglas Crutcher pled guilty last May to killing a cellmate at the Gunnison prison in 2013. A jury trial was scheduled to determine whether to impose the death penalty or not.
On Wednesday, instead, a court sentenced Crutcher to life in prison.
The court imposed the life sentence after Sanpete County prosecutors withdrew their intent to seek the death penalty after Crutcher’s attorney – not the prosecution, but the defense – uncovered the unfortunate fact that despite a judge’s order last October to turn over Crutcher’s entire medical file to the defense, the Department of Corrections withheld 1,600 pages worth of relevant documents, apparently for privacy concerns.
In other words, the state didn’t give Crutcher access to his own medical records in order to protect his own privacy. It makes no sense.
Edward Brass, Crutcher’s defense attorney, told the judge that it was crucial for the defense to have a full record of the medications Crutcher had been taking at the time.
Sixth District Judge Wallace Lee was not happy.
He told the parties, “I’m about as angry about this as I have been about anything in my career. I am beyond angry about this. I am angry with the Department of Corrections. This was totally wrong and makes me doubt the credibility of everything I hear about the Department of Corrections.”
The judge should do more than write a letter to the governor to suggest an internal review of Utah’s Department of Corrections. Lee called the department “sneaky” and “deceitful,” which is strong criticism from a state judge. If Lee really suspects foul play on the part of the Corrections Department, he should hold the prosecution accountable with appropriate sanctions.
It is the prosecutor’s job to ensure that all relevant documents are produced, especially when a judge has ordered production of those documents. If the prosecution suffers no penalty, then it has no reason to ensure compliance from cooperative or uncooperative state departments in the future.
The county attorney was right to withdraw its request for the death penalty. But this is a reminder that there are too many things that can go wrong in the pleading, prosecution and sentencing phases of death penalty cases.
It just isn’t worth it.