Why it’s time for Utah to do away with the death penalty, the Editorial Board writes

Bill to eliminate capital punishment in Utah rises from a new kind of conservative thinking.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune
Draper - The execution chamber at the Utah State Prison after Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad Friday, June 18, 2010. Four bullet holes are visible in the wood panel behind the chair. Gardner was convicted of aggravated murder, a capital felony, in 1985.

It’s time.

It’s time for Utah’s Legislature to recognize that the death penalty has no place in a modern society. That it falls disproportionally on the poor and minorities, that its use is becoming so rare in civilized nations and among the several states that it is approaching the definition of, if not necessarily cruel, then unusual.

But even beyond those reasons is the valid logic behind the latest bill to end capital punishment in Utah, put forward by state Rep. Lowry Snow and state Sen. Dan McCay. Their argument is the more coldly utilitarian — but still wholly valid — point that we’re just not very good at it.

And, as good Utah conservatives, McCay and Snow suggest that when government isn’t good at something, it should stop doing it.

They and their allies see that the extra layers of due process that must be in place when the ultimate penalty is even contemplated turn into years, if not decades, of hearings and appeals and retrials and resentenceings. It costs the taxpayers a lot more money, a real burden on counties with small populations and tax bases.

Most important to the bill’s supporters is the realization that the death penalty does not deliver the sense of closure and balance that it promises. If anything, those mourning the violent end of a loved one are forced to relive those wrenching emotions over and over, with each appeal, each ruling, each time an execution date is set, then cancelled, then set again.

These are standards imposed over many years by the Supreme Court of the United States and generally adhered to by all levels of federal and state courts. There is no reason, legal or moral, for those standards to appreciably change.

Snow said he used to be a supporter of capital punishment, but changed his mind after talking to a constituent whose sister and niece were the victims of one of Utah’s most gruesome murders, the 1984 crime committed by brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty. Ron Lafferty spent 34 years on Utah’s death row before dying of natural causes in prison in 2019 at the age of 78.

The result promised to the victims’ loved ones did not happen in that case and, Snow rightly argues, is unlikely to happen in many future murder cases.

He also notes that which perpetrators are sentenced to death and which are not is far too random to qualify as justice, depending as it does on the temperament of the judge, the skill of prosecutors and defense attorneys and the feelings of jurors.

And all of that is assuming that each person tried and convicted for the crime is the person who actually committed it.

Just last week, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt announced that he would no longer seek to impose the death penalty in his jurisdiction, for reasons that mirror those put forward by Snow and McCay.

The death penalty is already comparatively rare in Utah, rare enough that we have not recently fallen into the trap of sentencing, or executing, anyone whose guilt was in serious doubt. The last execution in Utah was more than a decade ago and the sentence has not been handed down for the last 13 years.

There are now only seven prisoners on Utah’s death row. One of them has been there for 36 years. The bill being proposed would not apply to those already sentenced to death, but only to cases going forward.

Capital punishment is currently authorized in 27 states. Seven states have moved to eliminate it since 2009, including Colorado and New Mexico. The most recent state to take that step was Virginia, earlier this year, the first southern state to do so.

One reason for keeping the death penalty on the books, even if no one is executed, is that it can be used as a bargaining chip in plea negotiations. In return for a promise not to face execution, a suspect might agree to not only plead guilty, sparing everyone the pain and expense of long legal proceedings, but also to help by, say, leading police to a missing body.

The proposed bill considers that, adding to the current sentencing options of life without parole or a 25-to-life term, a sentence of 45 years to life, another option to help in resolving a painful process.

Something else that must have been a painful process for some is the evolution of conservative thinking, in Utah and elsewhere, moving away from support for capital punishment. Changing one’s mind is something that is not always rewarded in American politics. It is seen as flip-flopping, betrayal, even.

But in this matter it is an example of intellectual and ethical growth, an example for us, and our elected officials, to follow.

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