News

Efforts to end the death penalty in Utah edged forward on September 8, 2021 as two Republican legislators revealed plans to introduce legislation to “repeal and replace” the state’s capital punishment law and the prosecuting attorney in the state’s second most populous county declared that he would no longer seek the death penalty in future cases.

After what they describe as having “spiritually contemplated the issue,” former death-penalty supporters State Representative Lowry Snow (R – St. George) and State Senator Daniel McCay (R – Riverton) announced that they will be sponsoring a bill in the 2022 legislative session that would repeal Utah’s death penalty statute and establish a new sentence of 45 years to life in prison for aggravated murder. Their proposed legislation would apply to murder charges brought on or after May 4, 2022 and would not affect the sentences of the seven prisoners currently on Utah’s death row. Also on September 8, Utah County Attorney David O. Leavitt (pictured), a conservative advocate of criminal legal reform, announced that his office would not initiate any further capital prosecutions.

Snow and McCay informed the editorial boards of the Deseret News and KSL-TV that the financial and emotional price the death penalty exacted from taxpayers and victims’ families had changed their minds about capital punishment. “It sets a false expectation for society, sets a false expectation for the victims and their families, and increases the cost to the state of Utah and for states that still have capital punishment,” McCay said.

In a motion filed in a Utah County trial court, Leavitt withdrew the notice of intent to seek the death penalty he had filed two years earlier against Jerrod Baum on two counts of aggravated murder. The county attorney also released a press statement and video to the public saying that “[t]he resources that I’ve committed to seeking the death penalty have limited this office’s ability to assist and care for victims of other crimes. … Today, I announce that as the Utah County Attorney, I will no longer seek the death penalty.”

“Pretending that the death penalty will somehow curb crime is simply a lie,” Leavitt said. “What I have witnessed and experienced since deciding to seek the death penalty is that regardless of the crime, seeking the death penalty does NOT promote our safety.”

Snow said he was affected by the “incredibly moving” story of his constituent, Sharon Wright Weeks, whose sister and niece were murdered by severely mentally ill cult leader Ronald Lafferty. Weeks, Snow said, was “retraumatized” by having to relive the murders in Lafferty’s first trial and then again in a retrial after his conviction was overturned. Lafferty ultimately died on death row.

“You can imagine if you’re a family and if the perpetrator is convicted in a first trial, sentenced to die. It’s set aside. It’s reversed. (It) has to come back for a whole other trial. You can imagine the anxiety of having to sit through that proceeding again. And that’s really, in some respects, only the beginning,” Snow said. “That’s well over 30 years, probably closer to 35 years, where the state of Utah was not able to find justice for this family in terms of what they were led to believe could be accomplished.”

The bill to repeal and replace the death penalty has the support of the Utah-based libertarian think tank Libertas Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. McCay also expressed concern over the finality and irreversibility of the death penalty, given the large numbers of people who have been exonerated after wrongful convictions and death sentences. DPIC has documented at least 185 death-row exonerations since 1972, amounting to one exoneration for every 8.3 people executed over that time period.

Snow and McCay expressed optimism that the Republican-controlled legislature will support their bill. “The more we can get our colleagues to critically think about the issue, the more people we have supporting us on the cause,” McCay said.

Sources

Bryan Schott, Lawmakers will make anoth­er run at abol­ish­ing Utah’s death penal­ty, Salt Lake Tribune, September 8, 2021; Katie McKellar, Should Utah abol­ish its death penal­ty? These Utah GOP law­mak­ers are going to try, Deseret News, September 8, 2021; Ben Winslow, Utah leg­is­la­ture to con­sid­er repeal and replace’ of death penal­ty, FOX 13, Salt Lake City; Katie McKellar, Why Utah County’s top pros­e­cu­tor says he’ll no longer seek the death penal­ty, Deseret News, September 8, 2021; Jack Helean, Utah County attor­ney says he will no longer seek the death penal­ty in future court cas­es, FOX 13, Salt Lake City, September 82021

Read the pro­posed bill to repeal and replace Utah’s death penal­ty. Watch the announce­ment by Utah County Attorney David O. Leavitt that he will no longer seek the death penalty.