A legislative interim committee approved a bill this week that would ease Utah's stringent death penalty standards - the toughest in the nation - and make it easier to apply the death sentence.
That vote probably represents public dissatisfaction with several recent court cases in which people convicted of brutal murders were not sentenced to die. The crimes, although vicious, supposedly fell short of some harsher conduct, such as the use of torture.Utah law currently says that to impose the death penalty, jurors must find "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the death penalty is "justified" and "appropriate" and that aggravating circumstances outweigh any mitigating circumstances.
The new bill, sponsored by Rep. Kay S. Cornaby, R-Salt Lake, would require jurors to base their decisions about the death penalty on the totality of evidence and remove the standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt" in determining if the death penalty is justified.
Since decisions about the death penalty are reached in a separate hearing after a defendant is found guilty, the proposed law would not change the "beyond a reasonable doubt" requirement in reaching the original verdict of guilt or innocence.
All of this sounds sensible, but the proposed law is opposed not so much by defense lawyers as it is by prosecutors.
The reason is that any change in Utah's death penalty standards would be subject to legal challenges all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, a process that might take years. If the court ultimately ruled against the changes, all the death penalties imposed under the new law could be thrown out. While some experts in death penalty cases say a changed Utah law could survive such legal challenges, prosecutors don't want to take the chance.
This is not an easy choice to make. When the bill reaches the full Legislature next January, lawmakers will have to decide if a simpler and more easily applied death penalty law will be worth the risk it will bring to cases decided under such provisions.
But if Utah is to have a death penalty law, it ought not to be so difficult to apply that even savage, brutal murders fail to qualify for such punishment.