Is the death penalty on death row? New legislation seeks repeal in Utah

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A new bill proposed by two Utah lawmakers would put an end to Utah’s long-standing death penalty, preventing any future criminals from being sentenced to death.

Sen. Dan McCay (R-SD11) and Rep. Lowry Snow (R-HD74) have drafted a bill to be proposed in the 2022 General Session of the Utah State Legislature that aims to repeal and replace Utah’s current standing death penalty. This bill would take away the state’s ability to sentence people to death for aggravated murder and replace it with a minimum sentence of 45 years to life in prison.

“I have always had questions about the death penalty,” McCay told the Review in an interview. “There are just questions as to whether or not it reflects the way we ought to deal with justice.”

Public opinion on capital punishment has varied in Utah in the last few decades. As early as 2010, a poll conducted by The Deseret News found that 79% of Utahns supported the death penalty, while only 4% stated they were “strongly opposed” to it. More recently, in 2021, another poll conducted by The Deseret News found that opinions have dramatically shifted since 2010, with now only a slight majority of 51% of Utahns supporting the death penalty.

McCay stated that his view on the death penalty has changed since 2015 when Former Rep. Paul Ray (R-HD13) led an initiative to bring back the firing squad as an alternative means of execution when lethal injection wasn’t possible. McCay had initially voted against that bill however changed his vote in order to pass it.

“From that time on I was struggling with the death penalty,” McCay said. “From [2016] until now I have read a bunch of information online, law review articles, and thought about the morality of it. I read Bryan Stevenson’s book [Just Mercy], then Anthony Ray Hinton’s book [The Sun Does Shine] was the one that really struck home for me.”

Anthony Ray Hinton spent 30 years of his life on Alabama’s death row for a crime he was wrongly convicted of until he was exonerated in 2015.

“The idea that you could get that close to executing an innocent person,” said McCay. “From a moral standpoint, that was one of the things that bothered me, was the chance that the government could be executing innocent people.”

Hinton’s case isn’t an anomaly either. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 186 people have been exonerated from death row since 1973. To put that into perspective, that would mean for every nine people executed in the U.S., one of them was innocent. 

“The idea that if someone is in jail, we can always fix it…,” McCay went on to say. “…We can’t do that for someone who has been executed.” 

The bill as it currently stands would only prohibit new sentences from being issued, and would not change the current sentences of the seven death row inmates serving in Utah. One of these inmates, Douglas Stewart Carter, has been serving on death row since 1985 for the murder of a Provo woman. Serving 36 years, he is the longest-serving death row inmate in Utah history.

“When we sentenced these people to death row, we promised the victims’ families that their version of justice was going to end with the person being executed,” McCay told The Review. “What I would hate to do is for the government to make a promise, and then pull the rug from out underneath that promise. That said, as I have looked at it, it is an illusory promise.”

Utah has not sentenced anyone to death since 1999 and hasn’t executed anyone since 2010 when Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad. The last person to die on death row was Ron Lafferty, who died from old age in 2019. Lafferty’s death called into question the state’s ability to serve justice via the death penalty, McCay reasoned.

“[the state] has made commitments and I think the government making a commitment should mean something,” McCay said.

Utah has proposed bills in the past that have sought to abolish the death penalty, both in 2016 and in 2018 but were unsuccessful because they couldn’t get a vote on the floor. However, both McCay and Snow believe this bill has the potential to be passed with its momentum. This bill has the support of several district attorneys, and Utah-based libertarian think-tank Libertas Institute.

In an open letter to Gov. Spencer Cox and the legislature, DA’s Sim Gill, Christina Sloan, Margaret Olson, and David Leavitt called Utah’s death penalty a “grave defect,” and it’s operation, “creates a liabity for victims of violent crime, defendants’ due process rights, and for the public good.”

“I am not interested as a prosecutor to just be getting a case over the line,” Gill told the Review about how the death penalty is used by some prosecutors as a bargaining chip. “I think the argument that [the death penalty] is a bargaing chip is just sad for justice.”

When asked to comment on how the governor would react to the bill, the governor’s office stated that Gov. Cox is still reviewing the bill, but gave no further comment. Gov. Cox has supported Utah’s death penalty in the past, but in a news conference back in September, he stated that he’s open to reevaulating his position.

When asked what he wanted his fellow colleagues to think about before they decide to vote in favor or against this bill McCay stated, “What I hope that my colleagues can do as well in addition to putting themselves in the shoes of the victim or the victim’s family is being able to put themselves in the shoes of the parents of the killer; or in the shoes of the officer who has to fire the gun or the medical professional who issues the drugs.”

“Put themselves in other people’s shoes besides the ones that are easy to put themselves into,” said McCay. “I am not willing to ask a state employee to do something that I am not willing to do myself.”

McCay voiced concerns that the midterm election might influence some of his colleagues to vote against this bill. However, he is confident that the bill will see its way through when his colleagues evaluate the real merits of keeping the death penalty versus doing away with it.

Gill voiced similar thoughts, asking legislators to weigh the death penalty on whether it has fulfilled the economic, judicial, or personal promises it has made on paper. Further saying that emotion should not govern our justice system.

“We should convict on the facts, not emotion,” Gill stated.

The 2022 General Session of the Utah State Legislature began Jan. 18, and will see many proposals introduced in the coming weeks. For more updates on legislation and the legislature, visit their website.