Utah

Utah

Political Analysis: Is Conservative Support the Future of Death-Penalty Abolition?

In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, released online in July, Ben Jones argues that, despite the popular conception of death-penalty abolition as a politically progressive cause, its future success may well depend upon building support among Republicans and political conservatives. In The Republican Party, Conservatives, and the Future of Capital Punishment, Jones—the Assistant Director of Rock Ethics Institute at Pennsylvania State University—traces the ideological roots of the recent emergence of Republican lawmakers as champions of death penalty repeal to long-held conservative views. He writes, “there is a cogent and compelling conservative argument against the death penalty: it is incompatible with limited government, fiscal responsibility, and promoting a culture of life.” Jones says that for much of the 20th century, the death penalty was not a partisan issue, as Republican governors signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in Kansas in 1907 and Minnesota in 1911. Later, Republican governors commuted the sentences of all prisoners on death row in Arkansas in 1970 and in Illinois in 2003. Jones believes that Republican lawmakers’ increased interest in criminal justice reform “has created an opportunity to reframe the death penalty in a way that resonates with traditional conservative concerns.” Though Jones is uncertain whether the nascent Republican legislative opposition to capital punishment is “part of a longer-term trend,” he says, if it is, “Republican and conservative opposition will provide important opportunities—which otherwise would be absent—to advance efforts to end the death penalty in the U.S.” One opportunity may be in Utah, where conservative Republican state senator Stephen Urquhart led an effort that came close to achieving legislative repeal of the death penalty in 2016. A July 19 Salt Lake Tribune editorial argued that “[e]nding the death penalty would save money and save souls.” On the same day, Rethlyn Looker, the Utah state chair for Young Americans For Liberty, wrote in a Tribune op-ed, that "as fiscal conservatives," the cost argument to abolish capital punishment "should resonate with us" because, "in Utah, it costs at least $1.6 million more to sentence a person to death than to sentence them to life in prison without the possibility of parole." But, Looker writes, the "most compelling reason" to oppose the death penalty is still "the fact that we simply can't trust the government to get something this serious right." She says, "[f]or all of the reasons we distrust the government to do the right thing in so many other areas, we should distrust the government to end a person's life."

Lawyers Say Utah Is Underfunding Death-Penalty Appellate Defense

Utah is not providing sufficient funding to competently represent death-row prisoners during their appeals, according to a motion filed on behalf of Douglas Lovell, the man most recently sentenced to death in the state. Because of that, Lovell's lawyer Samuel Newton says, Lovell's death sentence should be vacated and he should be resentenced to life in prison. Newton bases his claim on a 2008 Utah Supreme Court opinion, Archuleta v. Galetka, in which the court warned that "low levels of public funding for capital cases" and "significantly diminishing numbers of qualified counsel able and willing to represent capital defendants" might force the court to overturn death sentences if it "impedes prompt, constitutionally sound resolution" of a capital case. Newton argues that a billing cap imposed by Weber County officials and threats and meddling by county officials are compromising his ability to zealously represent Lovell. Lovell has been granted an evidentiary hearing on his post-conviction claims — including whether The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints interfered with the trial by limiting the testimony available from bishops who had worked with Lovell at the prison — and Newton estimates that the hundreds of hours required to investigate and prepare for the hearing would cost about $37,000. However, Weber County officials sent Newton an email accusing him of overbilling the county and meeting with his client too frequently, and threatening that, as a result, they may have to find other attorneys for future appeals. The county has capped his payment for the hearing at $15,000. "That's the bind," Newton said. "Do I represent my client zealously like I'm constitutionally required to do? Or do I tread lightly so I don't lose my livelihood?" Newton said that the financial strain of handling another death-penalty case has caused stress-related heart problems that led him to request to be removed from that case. Newton's motion is not the first time attorneys have expressed concerns about Utah's capital defense funding. In 2007, the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed an amicus brief in the case of Ralph Menzies. Affidavits submitted by well-known defense lawyers in connection with that brief reported that the final payments they received for handling death-penalty appeals had amounted to compensation at levels of $17 and $19 per hour — about one-tenth their normal billing rates. Defense attorney Richard Mauro said the pay rates make it almost impossible for private attorneys to take on capital appeals: "If you are doing the work the way it's supposed to be done — and trying to keep the lights on and run the copy machine — it's really not a feasible thing to do."

POLL: Nearly Two-Thirds in Utah Prefer Life-Sentencing Alternatives to the Death Penalty

According to a new poll, nearly two-thirds of Utah residents say they prefer some form of life sentence, rather than the death penalty, as the punishment for murder, and a majority support replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without possibility of parole. The statewide poll of 784 Utah voters conducted by Public Policy Polling on January 13-15, 2017 and released on February 9 found that Utah residents preferred life-sentence alternatives over capital punishment by a margin of 35 percentage points. 47% said they preferred life in prison without parole, plus a requirement that the convicted person work in prison to pay restitution to the victims; 9% selected life in prison without parole; 8% chose life in prison with a possibility of parole after 40 years; and 29% preferred the death penalty. The preference for alternatives held true across political party, religion, age, gender, and race. The poll also found that a majority (53%) of Utahns said they would strongly or somewhat support a bill to replace the death penalty with life without parole, a measure estimated to save the state more than $1.6 million per case. 41% of respondents opposed the bill. “The death penalty is losing favor in our state because it wastes tax dollars, is ineffective in stopping violent crime, and risks possibly killing an innocent person, and none of those things align with our conservative principles,” said said Kevin Greene, Organizing Director of Utah Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a project of the Utah Justice Coalition. In 2016, a death penalty repeal bill sponsored by Republican Senator Steve Urquhart passed the Utah Senate and a House legislative committee, but was not considered by the full House before the legislative session ended.

Support for the Death Penalty by Republican Legislators No Longer a Sure Thing

One year after the Nebraska legislature voted to repeal the death penalty and overrode a gubernatorial veto of that measure, actions in legislatures across the country suggest that the state's efforts signalled a growing movement against the death penalty by conservative legislators and that support for the death penalty among Republican legislators is no longer a given. Reporting in The Washington Post, Amber Phillips writes that Republican legislators in ten states sponsored or co-sponsored legislation to repeal capital punishment during the current legislative sessions. She reports that although these repeal bills have not become law, they have made unprecedented progress in several states. In Utah, a repeal bill sponsored by Sen. Stephen Urquhart (pictured)—a former death penalty proponent who supported the state's firing squad law—came closest, winning approval in the state Senate and in a House committee. Missouri's bill saw floor debate in the Senate, and Kentucky's received a committee hearing for the first time in 40 years. An effort to return death penalty support to the platform of the Kansas Republican Party failed by a vote of 90-75, and the Kansas College Republicans passed a resolution calling for the abolition of the death penalty, highlighting a generational divide on the issue. Dalton Glasscock, former president of Kansas College Republicans, said, "My generation is looking for consistency on issues. I believe if we say we're pro-life, we need to be truly pro-life, from conception to death." The National Association of Evangelicals also changed their stance on the issue, acknowledging "a growing number of evangelicals," who now call for abolition. Though a majority of Republicans still support the death penalty, Phillips writes that "it's notable that a year after we wondered whether Nebraska was an anomaly or the start of a trend, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that conservative opposition to the death penalty may indeed be a trend -- a small but growing one."

NEW VOICES: Former Utah Prosecutor Urges Death Penalty Repeal

Creighton Horton spent 30 years as a prosecutor with the Salt Lake District Attorney's Office and Utah Attorney General's Office before retiring in 2009. In a recent op-ed, he said his experience handling capital cases led him to believe Utah should abolish the death penalty. Horton noted the negative impact the death penalty can have on victims' families. "If a capital case goes to trial and the jury returns a verdict of death, that pronouncement is probably the last satisfaction the victim's family will get for years, if not decades," he said. "From that point on, the delays and uncertainties of the death penalty appeals process are likely to take a terrible toll, keeping the wound open and denying the victim's family any closure." He said a life without parole sentence for the perpetrator was often the best outcome for the families of victims: "When that happens, the murderers go to prison and, for the most part, no one hears about them again — and the victims' families are able to move on with their lives." He also raised concerns about wrongful convictions, stating, "No system of justice is perfect, and so it's possible that an innocent person could be convicted of capital murder, and wrongly executed." The Utah legislature is considering a bill to repeal the death penalty for future offenses. The bill passed the Utah Senate, and is likely to face a vote in the House on March 10.

Death Penalty Now Rarely Used in Utah

An analysis of the death penalty in Utah shows how rarely it has been used in recent years. Prosecutors have sought it in only 7 cases in the last 5 years, and none has resulted in a death sentence. Utah has had only 1 execution in the past 13 years. Experts have offered several reasons for the declining use: the alternative sentence of life without parole is now avaialble; the appeal of a death sentence is costly and slow; and many victims' families wish to see a more timely end to the criminal case. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sam Gill said the death penalty should be used sparingly, and only with great consideration: "What you want is a prosecutor who struggles with the death penalty, because it's a decision to take somebody's life. It shouldn't be something we do arbitrarily. It's not something that we should be cavalier about. It is not something we should reach to with indiscretion." Prosecutors also said they consider the wishes of the victim's family when deciding whether to seek a death sentence. Mark Anderson, whose cousin was murdered, said he believed life without parole was an appropriate punishment in that case. "When you have a crime that's committed, you need to protect two entities. You need to protect the victim and the public in general, and in both of those situations justice was satisfied," Anderson said.

COSTS: In Utah, Each Death Penalty Case Costs $1.6 Million Extra

According to Gary Syphus of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst's Office in Utah, seeking the death penalty costs the state an additional $1.6 million per inmate from trial to execution compared to life-without-parole cases. Syphus offered this estimate to the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee of the Utah legislature on November 14. Republican state representative Steve Handy had asked for an examination of the state and local government costs associated with implementing the death penalty in Utah.  Although he has not proposed any legislation, Handy said that the comparative costs of life without parole and capital punishment should nevertheless be examined. Ralph Dellapiana, a defense attorney and the director of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said the cost estimate offered did not adequately capture the full expense incurred by the state, since it did not include costs such as those associated with cases in which the death penalty is sought but not ultimately imposed.

NEW VOICES: Former Supporters Rethinking the Death Penalty Because of its High Costs

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, some long-time supporters of the death penalty have recently shifted their positions, questioning whether the occasional execution is worth the costs incurred by taxpayers at a time when budgets are strained.  Gil Garcetti (pictured), the former district attorney of Los Angeles County, which is responsible for roughly one-third of California's 727 death-row inmates, recently remarked, “I was a supporter and believer in the death penalty, but I've begun to see that this system doesn't work and it isn't functional. It costs an obscene amount of money." A study of the death penalty in California in 2011 showed that the cost of housing a death-row inmate was $100,000 per year more than the cost of housing someone sentenced to life without parole. The same study concluded that just picking a jury in death penalty cases costs $200,000 more than the amount for non-capital cases. In Montana, a group called Montana Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty has joined the movement to repeal capital punishment because of its cost. Steve Dogiakos, the group’s director, said, “The death penalty is another institution of government that is wasteful and ineffective.” In Utah, Republican State Rep. Stephen Handy recently asked for a fiscal review of how much the state is spending on capital cases: "I don't have any illusion that either the Utah legislature or the people are ready to overturn the death penalty. But I want to start the dialogue," he said.

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