‘Extremely significant’: Death penalty expert believes Utah may be on path to eliminate capital punishment

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(ABC4) – A coalition of district attorneys and county prosecutors from around the state made noise on Tuesday, presenting a joint letter to be sent to Governor Spencer Cox and the State Legislature, asking for a repeal of the death penalty.

Citing six specific reasons, the four attorneys; Christina Sloan of Grand County, Margaret Olson of Summit County, David Leavitt of Utah County, and Sim Gill of Salt Lake County combined their influence to pen a recommendation to replace the death penalty sentence for aggravated murder to a term of 45 years to life.

Robert Dunham, who works as the Executive Director at the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) in Washington D.C., tells ABC4.com that Tuesday’s message by the elected prosecutors is “extremely significant.”

“If leading prosecutors believe that the death penalty doesn’t work, and doesn’t advance Utah’s values, then that means death penalty repeal has overcome the largest hurdle that has been present in most other states,” Dunham explains.

Prior to working in his current position at the DPIC, Dunham spent over two decades as a capital offense litigator and teacher of death penalty law. He now oversees the work done at the DPIC, an organization he states is not for or against capital punishment but is critical of its administration.

According to the data analysis that DPIC has done over the years, the group presents an argument that the death penalty does not deter crime, including murder, and can be an extremely expensive process to ever result in an execution, which isn’t a guarantee to happen within the lifetime of the convicted. Both of these points were also included in the letter written by the Utah-based prosecutors.

The possible perception that a person who commits a heinous crime, such as aggravated murder in Utah, is given the death penalty and therefore will be quickly executed doesn’t hold any water according to research and the state’s history with capital punishment.

The last person to be executed by the state in Utah was Ronnie Lee Gardner on June 18, 2010. His execution by firing squad (yes, that is still an option if lethal injection is held unconstitutional, unavailable, or if the convicted selected that method before May 3, 2004) was highly publicized at the time. However, it came 26 years after his murder of an attorney during an escape attempt while being transported to a hearing for a separate robbery and murder.

Following his death sentence, which was given in October 1985, Gardner’s case was trapped in a series of appeals and defense motions that delayed his execution. Likely, the court and legal fees that were involved in finally carrying out his sentence were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more. DPIC cites a study by Duke University which found that the death penalty in North Carolina cost that state $2.16 million per execution over the cost of life imprisonment in its fact sheet. The coalition of attorneys in Utah referred to another study concluding that death penalty convictions cost taxpayers $1.12 million more than holding them for life.

“A death sentence also carries the inevitable expenses of appeal. The taxpayers must pay for both the prosecution and the defense in these hearings,” the letter reads.

More often than not, in a death penalty case, the conviction is overturned, Dunham states. This can set the tone for a bigger issue; sometimes the conviction is given to folks who are eventually exonerated. According to DPIC’s data, since the death penalty was brought back to the United States in 1973, 185 people have been exonerated of death row convictions. Against a rate of 1,534 completed executions, it doesn’t bode well for how successful sentencing someone to death in the United States has been, Dunham says.

“One person is exonerated for every 8.3 people who are executed. That’s a tremendous failure rate,” he states. “And most of the most people are not aware of the amount of time that a case takes to go through the appeals process also re-victimizes, the family members of the murder victim and delays their healing and ability to move forward.”

Expediting the process can pose a risk of killing an innocent person who may not have committed the crime, Dunham continues.

To Dunham, eliminating the death penalty makes sense for many reasons, not to mention the possibility of redemption for the person who may have made a grave mistake as a young person, with an undeveloped brain.

“Most people who commit murders, do so in their adolescent years or in their early 20s, which is before the portions of the brain that address impulse control and consequential thinking are fully developed,” Dunham says (ABC4.com notes Gardner committed his first murder at 24). “As people mature and truly become adults, they can be transformed.”

Attempts have been made before to repeal the death penalty in Utah. In 2018, a death penalty amendment was introduced in the state legislature as House Bill 379. The provisions were filed in the house but didn’t pass, even after a favorable recommendation from the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.

However, now that several district attorneys in some of Utah’s most populous areas have given their input to abolish capital punishment, Dunham feels the work has been done to put it over the top and have Utah eventually join the 23 other states that do not have the death penalty.

“I think that the strong limited government tradition in Utah, in combination with this effort by state prosecutors suggests that a bill to repeal and replace the death penalty has very good chances to succeed.”

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