Utah death penalty

Utah death penalty DEFAULT

Capital punishment in Utah

Capital punishment is a legal penalty in the U.S. state of Utah.

Utah was the first state to resume executions after the 1972–1976 national moratorium on capital punishment ended with Gregg v. Georgia, when Gary Gilmore was executed by firing squad in 1977. Utah is one of only two states to have ever carried out executions by firing squad, and the only one to do so after the moratorium ended.


The spring 1850 garroting of Patsowits, a Ute, was the first recorded execution in the provisional State of Deseret.[1]Utah Territory was established in September 1850, and it permitted condemned prisoners to choose between hanging and firing squad. In 1851, beheading was introduced as a third execution option.[2] No prisoner chose this method and the option was eliminated in 1888.[3] In 1955, Utah state lawmakers voted to introduce the electric chair; however, the state never used electrocution due to failure to provide appropriation.[4] Forty-four executions occurred in the State of Utah and Utah Territory before the national moratorium in 1972;[5] six were by hanging and 38 were by firing squad.[6] In 1958, twenty-one-year-old Barton Kay Kirkham became the last prisoner to be hanged by the state of Utah.[7] The last pre-moratorium execution in Utah took place on March 30, 1960.

In 1967, when the last pre-moratorium execution took place, Utah was the only remaining state to allow death row inmates to choose between firing squad and hanging.[4][8] Utah attempted to reintroduce death penalty statutes during the moratorium but they were struck down by the 1972 United States Supreme Court decision in the case Furman v. Georgia.[9] The state formally reinstated capital punishment on January 7, 1973,[10] and the new death penalty statutes were approved by the United States Supreme Court with the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976. The reinstatement allowed Utah to move forward with the death sentences of Dale Selby Pierre and William Andrews for crimes committed in 1974 prior to the reinstatement of capital punishment. They were later executed in 1987 and 1992, respectively. On January 17, 1977, Utah became the first state to execute a prisoner after the moratorium ended: Gary Gilmore was executed by a firing squad,[11] having selected that method over hanging. Lethal injection was introduced in 1980[8] and in February of that year, the Utah State Legislature replaced the option of hanging with the option of lethal injection.[12]

The first bill proposing to eliminate the firing squad option was introduced in the Utah House of Representatives in January 1996.[13] In 2004, the legislature passed HB180, which removed the right of the condemned to choose the method of execution and left lethal injection as the only remaining option in the state.[14][15] The abolition of the firing squad was not retroactive; three inmates on death row at Utah State Prison who chose this method of execution before the end of February 2004 were to be executed by firing squad under a grandfather clause.[15] Utah's most recent execution, that of 49-year-old Ronnie Lee Gardner on June 18, 2010, was the state's third execution by firing squad since the capital punishment moratorium was lifted, and the country's first sanctioned shooting in 14 years.[14]

Legislation signed by Utah Governor Gary Herbert in March 2015 restores the firing squad as a legal method of execution, requiring its use if the state is unable to obtain the necessary lethal injection drugs within 30 days of a scheduled execution.[16][17]

Utah is the only state besides Nevada to have ever used the firing squad. Oklahoma is the only other state currently allowing firing squads, and solely in the event that lethal injection, nitrogen hypoxia and electrocution are all declared unconstitutional.


Following the abolition of the firing squad, lethal injection became the state's only means of execution until 2015, and currently the primary method, with the firing squad being added as a backup method because of pharmaceutical companies' moves to limit the use of their drugs in executions.[16][17]

Executions in Utah are currently performed at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah.[18] Because the ethics standards of the American Medical Association forbid physician involvement in executions, other healthcare professionals including paramedics and nurses perform executions in Utah.[19] Paramedics and nurses, however, are also forbidden from participation in executions by their own professional organizations' ethics codes.[20][21][22] The prison protects the anonymity of professionals involved in executions, making it impossible for professional organizations to impose sanctions.[23]

Legal process[edit]

When the prosecution seeks the death penalty, the sentence is decided by the jury and must be unanimous.

In case of a hung jury during the penalty phase of the trial, a life sentence is issued, even if a single juror opposed death (there is no retrial).[24]

The power of clemency with respect to death sentences belongs to the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, which consists of five members appointed by the governor with consent of the state senate. The governor can only grant a stay of execution not extending beyond the next session of the board.[25]

Capital crimes[edit]

Under Utah law, aggravated murder is the only crime subject to the penalty of death. It is defined as follows:[26]

  1. The murder was committed by a person who is confined in a jail or other correctional institution;
  2. The murder was committed incident to one act, scheme, course of conduct, or criminal episode during which two or more persons were killed, or during which the murderer attempted to kill one or more persons in addition to the victim who was killed;
  3. The murderer knowingly created a great risk of death to a person other than the victim and the murderer;
  4. The murder was committed incident to an act, scheme, course of conduct, or criminal episode during which the murderer committed or attempted to commit aggravated robbery, robbery, rape, rape of a child, object rape, object rape of a child, forcible sodomy, sodomy upon a child, forcible sexual abuse, sexual abuse of a child, aggravated sexual abuse of a child, child abuse, aggravated sexual assault, aggravated arson, arson, aggravated burglary, burglary, aggravated kidnapping, or kidnapping, or child kidnapping;
  5. The murder was committed incident to one act, scheme, course of conduct, or criminal episode during which the murderer committed the crime of abuse or desecration of a dead human body;
  6. The murder was committed for the purpose of avoiding or preventing an arrest of the defendant or another by a peace officer acting under color of legal authority or for the purpose of effecting the defendant's or another's escape from lawful custody;
  7. The murder was committed for pecuniary gain;
  8. The murderer committed, or engaged or employed another person to commit the homicide pursuant to an agreement or contract for remuneration or the promise of remuneration for commission of the homicide;
  9. The murderer previously committed or was convicted of aggravated murder, attempted aggravated murder, murder, attempted murder, or an offense committed in another jurisdiction which if committed in this state would be one of these;
  10. The murderer was previously convicted of a specified felony such as child rape;
  11. The murder was committed for the purpose of:
    • preventing a witness from testifying;
    • retaliating against a person for testifying, providing evidence, or participating in any legal proceedings or official investigation; or
    • disrupting or hindering any lawful governmental function or enforcement of laws;
  12. The victim is or has been a local, state, or federal public official, or a candidate for public office, and the homicide is based on, is caused by, or is related to that official position, act, capacity, or candidacy;
  13. The victim is or has been a peace officer, law enforcement officer, executive officer, prosecuting officer, jailer, prison official, firefighter, judge or other court official, juror, probation officer, or parole officer, and the victim is either on duty or the homicide is based on, is caused by, or is related to that official position, and the murderer knew, or reasonably should have known, that the victim holds or has held that official position;
  14. The homicide was committed:
    • by means of a destructive device, bomb, explosive, incendiary device, or similar device which was planted, hidden, or concealed in any place, area, dwelling, building, or structure, or was mailed or delivered;
    • by means of any weapon of mass destruction; or
    • to target a law enforcement officer;
  15. The murder was committed during the act of unlawfully assuming control of any aircraft, train, or other public conveyance by use of threats or force with intent to obtain any valuable consideration for the release of the public conveyance or any passenger, crew member, or any other person aboard, or to direct the route or movement of the public conveyance or otherwise exert control over the public conveyance;
  16. The murder was committed by means of the administration of a poison or of any lethal substance or of any substance administered in a lethal amount, dosage, or quantity;
  17. The victim was a person held or otherwise detained as a shield, hostage, or for ransom;
  18. The murder was committed in an especially heinous, atrocious, cruel, or exceptionally depraved manner, any of which must be demonstrated by physical torture, serious physical abuse, or serious bodily injury of the victim before death;
  19. The murderer dismembers, mutilates, or disfigures the victim's body, whether before or after death, in a manner demonstrating the murderer's depravity of mind; or
  20. The victim, at the time of the death was younger than 14 years of age and was not an unborn child.

See also[edit]


  1. ^Schindler, Hal (January 28, 1996). "Taylor's Death Was Quick . . . But Some Weren't So Lucky". The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved June 26, 2010.
  2. ^"The Death Penalty for Murder". Deseret Evening News. George Q. Cannon, Brigham Young. May 16, 1879. p. 2. Retrieved October 6, 2010.
  3. ^Stack, Peggy Fletcher (June 4, 2010). "Is 'blood atonement' behind Utah firing squad request?". Scripps News. Archived from the original on 10 March 2012. Retrieved 6 October 2010.
  4. ^ ab"UTAH: Tales of the Firing Squad". Time. July 11, 1955. Archived from the original on December 15, 2008. Retrieved April 28, 2010.
  5. ^Martz, Maxine (January 15, 1977). "Gilmore would be No. 45 on death list". Deseret News. p. 1. Retrieved November 10, 2010.
  6. ^"2 More Inmates In 'Death Row' At State Prison". Deseret News. March 31, 1960. p. 4B. Retrieved 29 November 2010.
  7. ^Metcalf Jr., Dan (June 17, 2010). "History of Utah executions". KTVX. Retrieved October 4, 2010.
  8. ^ ab"Utah History Encyclopedia". Archived from the original on 2008-05-12. Retrieved 2008-04-15.
  9. ^Furman v. Georgia
  10. ^Death Penalty Information CenterArchived May 23, 2015, at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^Death Penalty Information CenterArchived April 21, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^"Utah bans executions by hanging". Lawrence Journal-World. Associated Press. March 9, 1980. p. 1. Retrieved October 4, 2010.
  13. ^Donaldson, Amy (January 26, 1996). "Firing squad carries out execution". Deseret News. pp. 1–3. Retrieved November 2, 2010.
  14. ^ ab"Utah firing squad executes US killer Ronnie Lee Gardner". BBC News. June 18, 2010. Retrieved June 22, 2010.
  15. ^ abDobner, Jennifer (January 22, 2004). "Plan to abolish firing squad advances". Deseret News. pp. 1–2. Retrieved October 3, 2010.
  16. ^ abHB0011
  17. ^ abHerbert signs firing squad alternate for executions into law
  18. ^"Methods of Execution". Archived from the original on 2008-07-03. Retrieved 2008-04-15.
  19. ^The Deseret News - Google News Archive Search
  20. ^"Archived copy"(PDF). Archived from the original(PDF) on 2015-02-26. Retrieved 2015-02-26.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  21. ^MMS: Error
  22. ^http://www.nursingworld.org/MainMenuCategories/EthicsStandards/Ethics-Position-Statements/prtetcptl14447.pdf
  23. ^Practicing Medicine on Death Row
  24. ^"76-3-207. Capital felony -- Sentencing proceeding". le.utah.gov. Retrieved June 8, 2017.
  25. ^"Article VII, Section 12. [Board of Pardons and Parole -- Appointment -- Powers and procedures -- Governor's powers and duties -- Legislature's powers.]". le.utah.gov. Retrieved June 8, 2017.
  26. ^Utah Code § 76-5-202

External links[edit]

Sours: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment_in_Utah

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

(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.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Sours: https://www.abc4.com/news/digital-exclusives/extremely-significant-death-penalty-expert-believes-utah-may-be-on-path-to-eliminate-capital-punishment/
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Utah legislature to consider 'repeal and replace' of death penalty

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to abolish the death penalty in Utah has been unveiled on Capitol Hill.

The forthcoming legislation, sponsored by Rep. Lowry Snow and Sen. Dan McCay, would not be a flat-out repeal of capital punishment. Instead, it would "repeal and replace" the death penalty.

Instead of execution, Utah would offer 45-years-to-life in prison, in addition to life without parole and 25-years-to-life in prison that are currently on the books. Rep. Snow, R-Santa Clara, said that came about in discussions with prosecutors across the state.

"They wanted a tool to be able to negotiate with perpetrators that you’re either going to be spending the rest of your life, or there’s the possibility, it may be remote that you’ll still see the light of day at some point," he told FOX 13.

The bill has been in the works for months and has involved discussions with lawmakers and prosecutors.

"The problem with the death penalty today is we have not been able to get it accomplished," Rep. Snow said, noting that legal appeals can last decades and some relatives of murder victims have died still waiting for a death sentence to be carried out.

The last man executed in Utah was Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010. Ron Lafferty died in prison of natural causes in the midst of decades of legal fights.A federal appeals court recently reinstated the death penalty sentence for Von Lester Taylor.

In an apparent nod to past concerns of some murder victims' families, the bill also would not commute the sentences of the seven men on death row in Utah. They will remain there, facing the possibility of a firing squad execution. (Utah has firing squad as the default method of execution when lethal injection is unavailable and the Department of Corrections has said it does not have the necessary drugs to carry out a lethal injection execution.)

Utah death row inmates

Keith Kramer, FOX 13 News

"It’s not throwing in the towel, it’s really an acknowledgment of the right fight," said Sen. McCay, R-Riverton. "I would argue that potentially the fight we’ve been involved in for generations may not have been the right fight."

The bill will be introduced in the 2022 legislative session. Connor Boyack, the president of the libertarian-leaning policy group Libertas Institute, which is backing the bill, said they have been meeting with lawmakers and believes the 45-to-life sentence has managed to persuade some capital punishment supporters.

"It’s a repeal and a replace. It’s not just saying no to something, it’s saying yes to something else. This new punishment, this 45-to-life that’s going to allow prosecutors to still pressure defendants to reveal where the body is, to confessing to the crime and admitting guilty, negotiating a plea deal," Boyack said.

Previous efforts to repeal capital punishment have been introduced in the Utah State Legislature and failed. Sen. McCay said he hopes things have changed.

"We’re hoping that time is really our friend here," he said. "Where people have the opportunity and lawmakers have the opportunity to wrestle with the process."

Read the proposed bill here:

Sours: https://www.fox13now.com/news/local-news/utah-legislature-to-consider-repeal-and-replace-of-death-penalty

Utah prosecutors urge lawmakers to pass bill abolishing death penalty

Four Utah county attorneys sent a letter to the governor and state lawmakers on Tuesday, urging them to back proposed legislation that would repeal the death penalty in Utah.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan, Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson and Utah County Attorney David Leavitt all signed the letter, which makes the case to abolish death sentences and replace them with the options of life in prison, 45 years to life or 25 years to life.

Currently, only those convicted of aggravated murder can be sentenced to death in Utah. The other options are life in prison or an indeterminate term of 25-years-to-life.

Since 1854, Utah has executed 50 people, most by firing squad, the attorneys wrote. According to the D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, seven people in Utah have been executed since 1977 – a year after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty. Neighboring Nevada has executed 12 people since then. Idaho has executed three. Texas has carried out the largest number of death sentences by far since 1976: 572. Virginia and Oklahoma both follow with more than 100.

This shows Utah is “more hesitant” than other states to impose the penalty, the attorneys wrote.

“Even so, the death penalty in Utah today is a permanent and irreversible sentence within an imperfect system,” the letter states. “It fails to deter crime. It retraumatizes victims. It disproportionately applies to minorities. It is expensive. And it makes plea deal negotiations coercive.”

The attorneys pointed out these issues with the death penalty in a news conference on Tuesday.

They said the number of people sentenced to death row who were later exonerated, (the Death Penalty Information Center counts 185 cases since 1973), is a cause for concern because you can’t undo a mistaken execution. They argued executions don’t deter violent crime and cited FBI data that average crime rates are higher in states with the death penalty than those without it.

The prosecutors also said that the death penalty is disproportionately applied to racial and ethnic minorities in Utah. Of the seven people currently on death row in Utah, three are racial and ethnic minorities – that’s 43%. And yet, racial and ethnic minorities only make up about a quarter of Utah’s population, according to 2020 census numbers.

The letter also brings up the 1988 murder of Gordon Church, a 28-year-old college student brutalized and killed because he was gay. The white man convicted of that murder, Lance Conway Wood, was sentenced to life without parole. Michael Anthony Archuleta, who is Hispanic and was believed to have been the primary instigator, was sentenced to death and remains on death row.

The attorneys continued, saying the death penalty brings more trauma than closure for the families of victims because these cases can continue through the appeal process for decades.

“And each appeal means another call to the family, another expectation to appear in court, another question for what will happen, and another reopening of terrible wounds,” the letter states.

They also cited taxpayer costs, who shoulder the costs of a defendants’ health care while in prison, in addition to the cost to appeal.

Lastly, they argued, it gives prosecutors too much power when they use execution as a bargaining chip. In these cases, attorneys often offer defendants a plea deal that puts them in prison for life without the option for parole in exchange for removing the possibility of a death sentence. If they don’t take it, they go to a jury trial with the possibility of being executed if convicted.

“A defendant’s need to bargain for one’s very life in today’s legal culture cannot be described as anything less than inherently coercive,” the letter states. “Accordingly, the death penalty simply gives already powerful prosecutors too much power to avoid trial by threatening death.”

Leavitt announced last week that so long as he’s the Utah County Attorney, he won’t pursue the death penalty in aggravated murder cases.

Because of this stance, he also reversed his decision to try for a death sentence in the ongoing aggravated murder case against Jerrod Baum, accused of killing two teens in late 2017 and hiding their bodies in an abandoned mine shaft.

The families of 18-year-old Riley Powell and 17-year-old Brelynne “Breezy” Otteson have been awaiting Baum’s trial since his arrest in March 2018 and supported prosecutors seeking his execution if convicted. Baum has pleaded not guilty. The case is scheduled for trial in July 2022.

Amanda Davis, Otteson’s aunt, told The Salt Lake Tribune last week that Leavitt was a “coward” for changing his mind on this case, saying death is the only appropriate sentence for Baum, who has spent about half his life behind bars.

“That’s home to him,” Davis said. “That’s giving him what he’s comfortable having.”

Utah Fraternal Order of Police President Brent Jex criticized Leavitt’s decision in a statement on Facebook, saying it “has done nothing but weaken public safety.” He and other officers had hoped Leavitt would seek the death penalty against Matt Hoover, who is charged with aggravated murder in the death of Provo Master Officer Joseph Shinner.

Shinner was fatally shot when Provo and Orem officers tried to arrest Hoover on Jan. 5, 2019, in an Orem shopping center’s parking lot.

Police said Hoover pulled a handgun and fired one shot, hitting Shinners who later died at a hospital. That case is ongoing, and Hoover hasn’t yet entered a plea.

“We all know that when you take away the possibility of execution, the top thing to come off in a plea deal now becomes life without parole,” Jex said, meaning more people convicted of aggravated murder getting sentences that include the possibility of parole.

Olson and Gill told reporters Tuesday that they aren’t making the same promise as Leavitt, but they are trying to achieve the same goals.

“We are asking the legislature to change the law,” Olson said.

Olson does not have any pending death penalty cases. Gill said his office has more than 165 open homicide cases right now but no death penalty cases yet.

Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, and Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, are putting forward the bill in the upcoming legislative session.

This would be the third time in recent years that lawmakers have debated the death penalty.

In 2016, then-Sen. Steve Urquhart’s proposal passed the Senate by a wide margin, but it died in the Utah House on the final night without a vote. In 2018, then-Rep. Gage Froerer pulled his bill after realizing it didn’t have the necessary support to pass.

Sours: https://www.sltrib.com/news/2021/09/14/utah-prosecutors-urge/

Penalty utah death

Is Utah’s death penalty on death row? This family’s story of being ‘shackled’ to a killer has state ‘on the cusp’ of repeal

Sharon Wright Weeks’ face darkened and her eyes brimmed with tears when she began to describe a bone-chilling sound that haunts her every time she hears the name Ron Lafferty.

“I’ve never heard anything like it before, and I haven’t heard anything like it since,” she said.

It was three months before her 16th birthday, the morning that she found out her 24-year-old sister, Brenda Lafferty, and her niece, Brenda Lafferty’s 15-month-old daughter, Erica, had been murdered.

Weeks said her mother broke the news to her in her bedroom in the basement of their house. The unrecognizable sound, she said, came from upstairs. It was so jolting, she said, it halted her tears.

“I found out after investigating that it was my dad,” Weeks said, her voice straining with emotion. “And he was screaming and crying at the same time.”

She paused.

“Every time I heard Ron Lafferty’s name,” she said, “I felt the same feeling that I had when I heard my dad.”

For 35 years, his name and that feeling tormented her. With each court date, with each appeal hearing, she said it never seemed to end.

Ronald Watson Lafferty, convicted for the brutal killing, was supposed to die by execution on or around July 19, 1996 — what would have been Brenda Lafferty’s 36th birthday, Weeks said. For years, Weeks wanted him to die by execution to give her family justice and relief for his horrific crimes.

But that didn’t happen.

Weeks family photo

Now, Weeks has positioned herself as one of the state of Utah’s most powerful voices against the death penalty. And she has some allies on Utah’s Capitol Hill, including a pair of influential conservative Republicans.

She knows what happens to families of victims in the years — decades — after a convicted killer is sentenced to die. That’s why she said she wants to give a “gift” to other future victims’ families by taking the death penalty off the table.

“I don’t want another human to suffer what I know will be their suffering,” she said. “If a death sentence is given, it will start the process of their own personal hell.”

So Weeks is gearing up for what she knows will be a very public battle next January: an effort to repeal and replace Utah’s death penalty statute once and for all.

She has two veteran Republican lawmakers who say they’ve searched their souls and changed their minds about whether capital punishment should be on Utah’s books. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Utah-based libertarian think tank Libertas Institute are also behind her and the bill the pair of GOP lawmakers have drafted.

The legislation would not only repeal Utah’s death penalty, but replace it with a new law — one that, as currently drafted, would give prosecutors a new bargaining chip in its place in their pursuit of plea deals: a sentence for aggravated murder of 45 years to life in prison.

It’s Weeks’ story — and how it’s coalesced even staunch conservatives around the effort — that’s feeding momentum the state has never seen before, said a national death penalty expert, Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

That’s putting Utah “on the cusp” of being one of the next Western states to repeal, he said, calling it a “very strong possibility.”

Dunham said he doesn’t make predictions. “But I can tell you that the stars are lining up,” he said. “There is a clear momentum here.”

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

‘Shackled’ to a killer for 35 years

Ron Lafferty and his brother, Dan Lafferty, were convicted in a brutal murder that remains one of Utah’s most infamous. While Dan Lafferty, in a separate trial, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, eventually to fade into obscurity, Ron Lafferty’s name is one that continues to live in infamy.

Claiming a revelation from God, the two brothers slashed the throats of Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, nearly decapitating the toddler, in their American Fork home on July 24, 1984.

Sensationalized by the drama of the death penalty, Ron Lafferty’s name hit headline after headline as his case inched its way through the court system for more than three decades.

Weeks described it as a “horrendous” situation for the family — “being shackled to the person who so brutally took your family members and drug through the appellate process along with them, being revictimized over and over and over again.”

Weeks family photo

Consider this saga of the Ron Lafferty’s case:

  • Ron Lafferty was tried in 1985, convicted and sentenced to die.
  • In 1988, the Utah Supreme Court found Lafferty’s claims for appeal to be without merit and affirmed his convictions and sentences.
  • In 1989, a U.S. District Court judge denied Lafferty’s request for a writ of habeas corpus.
  • In 1991, the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his verdict and reversed it, ruling the state court had applied the wrong legal standard to determine whether Lafferty was competent to stand trial.
  • Lafferty was charged again. In November 1992, another competency hearing was held. The 4th District Court in Provo found he was not competent to stand trial because of mental illness, and he was sent back to the Utah State Hospital for treatment.
  • In 1994, the court determined Lafferty was competent to stand trial, but the trial was delayed by Lafferty filing several motions.
  • In 1996, Lafferty went on trial again. He was found guilty and sentenced to die.
  • Lafferty filed another appeal to the Utah Supreme Court. In 2001, the court again affirmed his conviction and sentence.
  • In November 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Lafferty’s appeal.
  • In 2007, the Utah Supreme Court denied Lafferty’s request for a new trial.
  • In 2010, Lafferty sought another mental competency evaluation in U.S. District Court.
  • In 2014, a U.S. District Court judge concluded Lafferty was competent to take part in the federal review.
  • In 2017, A U.S. District Court judge denied Lafferty’s petition to vacate his convictions and sentence.
  • In 2019, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to hear his case by a unanimous decision.
  • One of his last options was to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to take his case.

Lafferty was slated to be executed by firing squad, an option he chose before Utah changed its law to use the firing squad only as a backup method if lethal injection drugs aren’t available.

Ron Lafferty, one of the longest-serving condemned inmates in the country, sat on Utah’s death row for 34 years until he died in 2019, just months after his last appeal was denied. But it wasn’t by firing squad.

Instead, Ron Lafferty died in prison at age 78 of natural causes.

After he died, Weeks said it felt as if “our family needed another funeral because we could finally let Brenda and Erica rest.”

“Their names had been in the media, ongoing, the entire time. And I was relieved that we were done.”

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

‘A counterfeit promise’

Weeks has spoken before to the Deseret News about how she didn’t disagree with the jury’s decision to execute Ron Lafferty. But as she watched his case crawl through years of appeals, she said she no longer sees the death penalty as effective. She got to a point where she just wished her sister and niece’s killer would die peacefully in his sleep.

Since then, her resolve against the death penalty has grown only stronger.

“Justice is supposed to be swift,” Weeks said. “It was promised to us by the state of Utah, once in 1985 and again in 1996.”

Now, Weeks said it’s a lie. She said Creighton Horton, a prosecutor who worked on Ron Lafferty’s case, has since apologized to her and said the death penalty, for victims’ families, is “a counterfeit promise.”

Weeks said she’s still a proponent for the idea of the death penalty, but, she said, “I just know it’s not viable. ... It isn’t a real thing. It does not exist. It is a life sentence with a lot of publicity.”

Weeks said she spent 25 years of her life trying to figure out how to fix it, but she said it’s simply “the system” and “a human rights issue.” In the end, “nothing is worth the cost of executing innocent people,” she said.

Since 1973, 185 death row inmates have been exonerated in the U.S., according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a national nonprofit that provides data and analysis on capital punishment. “There’s no way to tell how many of the 1,534 people executed since 1976 may also have been innocent,” the organization says on its website, noting “courts do not generally entertain claims of innocence when the defendant is dead.”

Weeks added that she understands the feeling of wanting your loved one’s killer to be put to death.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“In the beginning, you want them to hang,” she said. “You want to hold onto their leg and tug a little bit. You really do. ... There is that feeling of an eye for an eye, absolutely.”

But the reality is, she said, “we have advanced as a society past the point of trusting our government with killing inmates.” And even beyond that, the toll on families is just too high, she said.

Having lived it for more than three decades, Weeks said she has “nothing to gain” in the upcoming debate in the Legislature, even though it will continue to remind her of the pain and suffering she and her family has been through.

“I just don’t want it to happen to anybody else. I would love to give a gift to the next family that they don’t even know they’re getting.”

Utah has shot down a repeal effort twice before. What’s different now?

In 2017, two years before Ron Lafferty’s death, Weeks said she brought her story to Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, and asked him if lawmakers were “aware of what our family is going through, and other families, after having a promise from the state of Utah of what justice is and then never (receiving) justice.”

Snow — who has voted before, along with many of his other Republican colleagues, against previous Utah death penalty repeal efforts — said he was “moved” by Weeks’ story. As they stayed in touch, in the years before and after Ron Lafferty’s death, Snow said his feelings about capital punishment have changed.

He called it a “spiritual journey.” Describing himself as someone who is “very much pro-life” Snow said as he’s gotten older, “the more I believe that God, or a higher power, is in the details of life and death, both. And I think when we as mortals get involved, especially in a legal capacity ... we interfere with that process.”

“Allowing that person to die in prison, leaving that up to his maker or her maker, and not having to publicize that person and inflict emotional trauma on family is a better approach,” he said.

The financial cost is also a big factor that’s swayed some Utah conservatives before, and is likely to again next year. The Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice recently completed a study that concluded state and local governments spent roughly $40 million over 20 years on death penalty cases. That figure funded only two sentences.

It took him several years, but Snow said he felt 2022 was the right year to move forward with a repeal and replace effort.

“I felt different this year. I don’t know how to describe it except that some things fell into place,” Snow said, adding Weeks’ strong commitment to come forward publicly made him feel like “this was the right time.”

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton — another conservative who said he’s changed his mind about the law — has signed on to sponsor the bill in the Senate, where previous iterations of a Utah death penalty repeal have been narrowly successful. In 2016, the Utah Senate voted 15-13 to approveSB189, sponsored by now former Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George.

But the 2016 bill stalled in the House, even though then-House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, supported it. In 2018, a late-to-surface bill also failed to muster the votes needed to pass the House, and its sponsor, Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, pulled it from consideration.

So it’s likely the Utah House will be the true linchpin of whether the 2022 bill passes or fails.

And it will be put to the test early. Snow is the chief sponsor of the bill, meaning the bill will start in the House.

“Nothing is going to be easy,” Snow said. “But I think if it can get past the House and pick up momentum there, I’m hopeful it will move that way in the Senate, too.”

‘We’ll give it a stay of execution for another year’

An ardent supporter of Utah’s death penalty, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, is extremely skeptical Snow’s bill will survive the 2022 Utah Legislative session. He said he doubts it will make it out of the House alive.

“We’ve shot it down like three times now,” he said. “You know, they say you can’t beat a dead horse but apparently you can.”

Ray, who in 2015 successfully championed a bill to legalize the firing squad in Utah if lethal injection drugs aren’t available, believes the death penalty should remain on the books for the most hardened and deserving of criminals.

“There are certain crimes that are so heinous you should have to sacrifice your life,” Ray said.

Ray said the case of Dave Noriega, a KSL radio talk show host whose grandmother and aunt were brutally murdered in their Summit County cabin, is a “great example” of a victim’s family member who supports the death penalty.

To Noriega, it’s not about revenge or deterrence, but about justice. Noriega in a 2018 committee hearing told lawmakers “you will be depriving our family” of justice if they abolish the state’s death penalty.

Ray said he’s confident there are still enough conservative lawmakers in the House who think the same as him.

“I think we tie it up in the House again. I just haven’t seen enough of a change in philosophy in the House. I mean, they weren’t even close on getting their votes in the House (in 2018) ... So I don’t see the votes changing a whole lot.”

Ray said if lawmakers “really want to do something,” they should put the question on the ballot for voters to decide. He pointed out polls generally show most Utahns support the death penalty.

So, no, Ray doesn’t think Utah’s death penalty is on death row this year.

“No, we’ll give it a stay of execution for another year,” he said.

A 2010 Deseret News-KSL poll showed 79% of Utahns either strongly or somewhat favored the death penalty. However, in 2018, a study by the state’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice suggested Utahns’ support of the death penalty could be waning.

Counting votes

Despite Ray’s doubts, Marina Lowe, who is representing both the ACLU of Utah and the Libertas Institute on the repeal effort, said there are plenty of reasons to be more confident this time around. While legislative outcomes are difficult to predict, she said they’re confident the votes can align.

“My intelligence shows me that we have pretty solid vote counts,” she said. “But we’ll have to see where that goes. People’s minds, I think, are still open to being changed one way or the other.”

What is “indisputable,” she said, is there is “more momentum around this issue this year than we have ever seen before. More than even in 2016 when we came just one floor vote away from passing a repeal all together.”

Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, said Ray’s hardline prediction is misinformed.

“This bill has never been shot down in the House. This is a different bill. It’s a different sponsor. It’s a different group behind it. It’s a different Legislature. And Rep. Ray has not been in the many conversations that we have,” Boyack said.

“I think his calculus is off on this ... and he’s just projecting a desired outcome for him, which is status quo. He’s not up to speed on all the different dynamics that are involved in this particular effort.”

Those dynamics include kick-starting the effort extremely early, roughly five months before the January general session is slated to begin. Additionally, soon after announcing the bill, top prosecutors from four Utah counties announced they were backing the repeal. They called it “a false hope” for victims and a “big lie” and a “fraud.”

Boyack also noted Snow has “significant respect” among his legislative colleagues, “and he’s not a person who backs down from taking on a complex criminal justice issue.”

Snow, when asked about Ray’s comments, said he has a “tremendous amount of respect” for Ray. “But public policy on these issues rests with the Legislature. And I think it’s an issue worthy of us hearing and having fair debate on it. That’s all I ask.”

Snow declined to predict an outcome, but he believes “there are enough of my colleagues that feel inclined to allow this to be heard and to be debated.”

Utah’s legislative leaders are shying away from taking positions on Snow’s bill this early. Both House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, in interviews with the Deseret News declined to say whether they supported it. But they both said it’s an issue worthy of discussion.

“It’s an emotional issue and I think we as a Senate will consider it, but I don’t want to predict the outcome right now,” Adams said.

“We’re just going to let the process be the process and let people see where they come down on it,” Wilson said, “and I’m probably going to keep my opinions to myself for a while on this one.”

Asked for his stance on the issue, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes’ office said the state’s top prosecutor is staying neutral on the issue.

Gov. Spencer Cox, even though he’s been a past supporter of Utah’s death penalty, has left the door open for the repeal and replace legislation.

Asked during his monthly PBS Utah news conference Thursday about whether he would sign the bill if it passes, the governor said he hasn’t “made a final decision,” but he’s had “occasion to reevaluate my feelings about the death penalty.”

“I’m anxious to have this conversation and to listen to all sides, and then we’ll make the right decision,” he said.

The West’s ‘frontier’ movement away from the death penalty

Dunham, who for the Death Penalty Information Center monitors what states across the nation are doing regarding capital punishment, said there are plenty of factors that are making Utah a particularly interesting state to watch in the coming months.

“People who are looking at the United States and are interested in the death penalty believe that Utah is one of the states that may well abolish very soon,” Dunham said.

Nevada, he said, is “also on the cusp of abolition.” Zoom out even farther, and that movement “is particularly strong in the western United States.”

There’s a moratorium on executions in Oregon and California. Colorado abolished its death penalty last year. Wyoming, also a heavily Republican state, came close to abolishing it earlier this year, he noted.

“There hasn’t been an execution west of Texas in six years,” Dunham said. “And the number of new death sentences imposed west of Texas has been at a record low over the last three years. So we’re seeing all sorts of movements away.”

Why is the West making this move? Dunham said it’s a curious phenomenon.

“There’s a regional dimension to capital punishment,” he said. “It’s hard to explain exactly what it is, but it’s a combination of culture and politics.”

The West has a “kind of frontier personality,” he said, “especially in the Mountain West, where there is a distrust of government interference in day-to-day life.”

“One line I heard was, ‘If we don’t trust the government to fix potholes and regulate shoelaces, why would we trust it with capital punishment?’” Dunham said. “And so that kind of mentality favors limited government.”

It’s not as though it’s “sweeping the country,” he said, “but it’s a steady movement away. And the question is when do you reach that critical point?”

In Utah, the stars seem to be aligning, he said. A family member who’s been personally affected willing to be very public with her story. Well-respected, conservative lawmakers changing their minds and throwing their support behind it. A coalition of prosecutors taking a strong stance against it.

“Utah is ripe for a serious abolition effort,” Dunham said. While it’s “too soon to say what the outcome is going to be, nobody would be surprised if Utah were to abolish it.”

Sours: https://www.deseret.com/2021/10/4/22672848/utah-death-penalty-on-death-row-familys-story-shackled-to-ron-lafferty-repeal-capital-punishment
Families of murder victims react to Utah county death penalty announcement


Famous Cases

Ronnie Lee Gardner became the third person in the modern era to be executed by firing squad on June 18, 2010. It has not executed anyone since.

On July 24, 1984, a state holiday commemorating the arrival of Mormons in the Salt Lake Valley, Ronald Laffertyand his brother Dan murdered his sister-in-law Brenda and her baby daughter, delusionally believing that they had been responsible for his excommunication from the Church of Latter Day Saints. Lafferty, who was severely mentally ill, and his brothers had formed a breakaway polygamous sect they called the School of the Prophets. He said he had received a “divinely inspired” vision to commit the killings. Lafferty was sentenced to death in 1985, but a federal appeals court overturned his conviction because of his concerns over his mental competency. His retrial was delayed after a court found him incompetent to stand trial in 1992. Two years later, he was deemed competent to be retried. He was retried and convicted in April 1996 and again sentenced to death.

Lafferty died on Utah’s death row in November 2019 at the age of 78. At the time, he was Utah’s longest-serving death-row prisoner. Lafferty’s case was the subject of Jon Krakauer’s 2003 book, Under the Banner of Heaven.

Other Interesting Facts

Utah was the first state to resume executions after capital punishment was reinstated in the United States in 1976, when Gary Gilmore was executed by a firing squad on January 17, 1977.

Utah is the only state to have executed inmates by firing squad in the modern era.

Sours: https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/state-and-federal-info/state-by-state/utah

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By L. Kay Gillespie

There has always been provision for execution as a form of punishment in Utah, although the methods proposed have changed over time. For example, original statutes provided beheading, hanging, and the firing squad as means of carrying out the death penalty. Beheading was never used and, in 1888, was dropped as an option. Hanging and the firing squad remained the only two options until 1980 when hanging was eliminated and replaced by lethal injection. Prior to this, the condemned was given his (Utah had never executed a woman) choice between hanging and firing squad and, if he refused to specify a choice, the firing squad was mandated. With the change in the law in 1980, the choice was still preserved, but if the condemned refused to choose, lethal injection was mandated.

To date, there have been forty-seven legal executions in the state of Utah [editor's note: as of 1991 when this article was written]. Of these, thirty-nine were by firing squad, six by hanging, and two by lethal injection [editor's note: as of 1991 when this article was written]. The last hanging was that of Barton Kirkhamn in 1958. He was executed for killing two people in a Salt Lake City grocery store, and he chose hanging because it would put the state to the most trouble and inconvenience. [One of the] ...last firing squad executions was that of Gary Gilmore who was executed for killing two young men in Utah County. He died 17 January 1977, the first person executed after ten years of moratorium on executions in the United States. [editor's note: On January 26, 1996, the last person to be executed by firing squad in the United States took place in Utah. John Albert Taylor was executed at 12:03am Mountain Time for the 1988 rape and strangulation of 11-year-old Charla King. See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Albert_Taylor]

Lethal injection was introduced in Utah with the death of Pierre Dale Selby, on 28 August 1987. He was sentenced to die for killing three people in Ogden's HiFi Shop thirteen years earlier, and was the second black to be executed in Utah. Also two Hispanics and two Indians have been executed; all the others have been white men. Of the forty-seven executed men, twenty-five were non-Mormons, and eight Mormons; the religion of fourteen could not be specifically ascertained. The ages of those executed ranged from eighteen to sixty-four years of age--the age of John D. Lee when he was executed after being returned to the scene of the Mountain Meadows Massacre for execution, twenty years after the crime occurred. The time between conviction and

There have been two double executions. In 1854, two Ute Indians were executed together by hanging for killing two brothers in Cedar Valley. In 1956, two men were executed simultaneously for the killing of a Beaver City gas station employee.

Originally, executions usually took place in the counties where the crimes occurred and were carried out under the direction of the county sheriff. In 1903 this changed and executions generally took place at the Sugar House prison, although still under the direction of the county sheriff. In 1951, with the construction of the new prison at Point of the Mountain, executions were conducted at the prison; and firing squads were generally selected from volunteers among law enforcement officers of the county in which the crime occurred.

Among the twenty-nine counties in the state, thirteen have had crimes that resulted in executions. As could be expected, the more populous counties had more capital crimes with Salt Lake County by far leading the way.

Utah has always been considered rather unusual among the states in that the condemned is given a choice as to the method of execution, although seven other states also provide more than one alternative. Idaho and Oklahoma also provide firing squads as options. Those states that provide more than one method of execution as a general rule also allow the condemned to choose which method he or she prefers.

Utah has had its share of "famous" executions. In 1878 Wallas Wilkerson was executed after his case became the first one heard on appeal by the U.S. Supreme Court challenging execution as "cruel and unusual punishment." Joe Hill was executed on 19 November 1915 after appeals for clemency from Helen Keller, President Woodrow Wilson, and the Swedish ambassador were ignored, although there were many who believed Joe Hill was innocent. In 1938 John Deering allowed his heart beat to be monitored while he was being executed by firing squad. On 17 January 1977 Gary Mark Gilmore became the first person executed in the U.S. after all those under sentence of death had been released from death rows around the country ten years earlier. His execution renewed the capital punishment process that continues to this day. Under more strict guidelines from the Supreme Court, capital punishment laws and procedures were reinstituted and death rows began again to fill.

See: L. Kay Gillespie, The Unforgiven: A History of Utah's Executed Men (1991).

Sours: https://www.uen.org/utah_history_encyclopedia/c/CAPITAL_PUNISHMENT.shtml

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