Justice and Due Process

New Effort to “Repeal and Replace” the Death Penalty in Utah

Representative Lowry Snow and Senator Dan McCay jointly announced today that they are together sponsoring a new bill, for the upcoming 2022 legislative session, to “repeal and replace” the death penalty in Utah.

This new effort follows an emerging trend of other states abandoning capital punishment, including Virginia earlier this year and Colorado last year. Utah, often known for its thoughtful and measured approach to complicated issues, sometimes branded as the “Utah way,” may be the next state to take legalized killing off the table.

There are strong reasons why those in favor of the death penalty should rethink their support. I myself was once a fierce advocate for capital punishment, but like many conservatives and limited-government proponents, came to realize that I could not reconcile my views. With education, I soon understood several key points:

  • The death penalty is not a deterrent; states without the death penalty actually have a lower murder rate.
  • The death penalty is a counterfeit promise; because of lengthy, court-mandated appeals (to ensure due process since the state is seeking to end a life), prosecutors tell victim family members they will have justice when the defendant is dead, only to see them live on for decades — and be glorified in media surrounding each public appeal.
  • Innocent people have been sentenced to death and actually executed.
  • Life without parole is a sort of death penalty (ending someone’s public life) that reduces cost to taxpayers, prevents innocent people from being executed, and spares victim family members the attention and contention that comes from the death penalty’s very public appeal process.
  • Taxpayers are compelled to pay a significant cost to support a system that often seeks the death penalty but rarely administers it; in Utah, $40 million was spent in the last two decades only to see two new death sentences handed down.

Many other arguments exist, but what has been most interesting to me is the intellectual journey so many elected officials in Utah have taken on this issue over the last few years — and that includes Representative Snow, the lead sponsor.

His own views on the death penalty were greatly influenced by Sharon Weeks, a constituent in his district whose sister and niece were killed by Ron and Dan Lafferty. These much-publicized murders led to decades of harm to Sharon and her family due to all the appeals Ron went through, and the constant re-opening of wounds that couldn’t heal.

This ordeal is starkly contrasted against the experience with Dan who, unlike his brother Ron, was sentenced to life without parole. Dan was locked up for life without the possibility of parole, and Sharon and her family were told justice was served — and they believed it. But prosecutors told them that justice for Ron would be the death penalty, and they also believed that. But the family was denied what they were told justice would be; Ron died in late 2019 in prison of old age.

Past efforts in Utah have revolved around simply repealing the death penalty. Rep. Snow and Sen. McCay are taking a different approach, borne out of an attempt to find the “Utah way” and solve the problem this issue presents. Their bill aims to “replace” the death penalty with another option for aggravated murders.

Under current law, these defendants can be punished with a 25-to-life sentence, or life without parole. The proposed bill adds an additional option of 45 to life as well, which enables prosecutors to add a harsher punishment in hopes of securing a confession or negotiating a plea deal.

This is important because, from all the research I’ve conducted, this is effectively the only valid argument in favor of keeping the death penalty. Prosecutors argue that having the death penalty available allows them to pressure a killer into revealing where the body is, or confessing to the crime. However, nearly two dozen states have eliminated the death penalty and can still achieve these outcomes; abandoning capital punishment has not hindered their ability. And adding an additional (and higher) penalty gives another tool to prosecutors — and one that spares victim family members, taxpayers, and the public at large.

We are a people who aim to have integrity; Utahns try to stand by their word. And yet on this issue, the system leads prosecutors to make false claims and hollow promises. The reality is that there is effectively no death penalty in Utah right now, yet taxpayers still fund the system as if it did exist, and victim family members are led to believe in and hope for an outcome that doesn’t arrive.

This new legislative proposal is not a simple repeal — it’s an attempt to fix a problem and fill a gap to still pursue justice. We look forward to working with the sponsors and making the case that this approach is a better balance for all involved parties.