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Capital punishment critics point to Utah cases as examples of unfairness

SALT LAKE CITY — The Lafferty brothers were both convicted of the gruesome killing of their sister-in-law and her 15-month-old daughter in separate trials. Dan maintains it was he, not Ron, who slit the throats of Brenda and Erica Lafferty. One jury condemned Ron Lafferty to death. The other jury put Dan Lafferty in prison for life.

In fact, four of Utah's 10 death row inmates had accomplices who were found guilty of murder but were not sentenced to death.

Capital punishment critics point to that unevenness as another reason for doing away with the law.

"There's just no rhyme or reason," said Ralph Dellapiana, a Salt Lake attorney who heads Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. "It's bizarre."

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said that's the nature of the jury system.

"I do think there is fundamental unfairness, but that's the system we have and we just live with it," he said. "How do you change that? You have to let the juries decide that."

Lance Conway Wood escaped the death penalty for his role in the 1988 killing of a Southern Utah State College student because the jury couldn't reach a unanimous decision on his punishment. The 10-woman, two-man panel convicted Wood of capital murder in the death of Gordon Ray Church, who was raped and beaten with a tire iron. But during the penalty phase, jurors could not agree, resulting in a life sentence with the possibility of parole. Co-defendant Michael Anthony Archuleta was condemned to die after being found guilty of capital murder in a separate trial.

In the case of Edward S. Deli, the difference between life and the possibility of death was a single juror.

Deli and Von Lester Taylor escaped from a halfway house in 1990 and broke into a cabin in Oakley where Beth Potts, 70, and her daughter Kaye Tiede, 49, were killed execution style with two different guns. Defense attorneys argued Taylor unloaded his gun on the victims and then grabbed Deli's gun and unloaded it.

Eleven members of the panel wanted to convict Deli of capital murder, which would have put the death penalty on the table. But one juror held out, saying he wasn't convinced Deli shot anyone. The jury ultimately found him guilty of two reduced counts of second-degree murder. The judge sentenced Deli to five years to life and recommended he never be paroled. The Utah Board of Pardons later upheld the recommendation, ordering him to spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Taylor was convicted of two counts of capital murder and sentenced to die by lethal injection.

Eric Thomas Daniels held down a fellow Utah State Prison inmate's legs while another inmate, Troy Michael Kell, stabbed him 67 times during a racially motivated slaying in 1994. Prosecutors argued Daniels helped plan and carry out Lonnie Blackmon's death. A four-man, eight-woman jury returned a guilty verdict for aggravated murder and handed down a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Kell was sentenced to die.

Some of those cases may appear to be apples to apples, but there can be differences in the level of culpability, said Creighton Horton, who retired last year after a 30-year career as a prosecutor. Factors such as who came up with a plan, who carried out the plan, who was more deeply involved are considered in a trial. Jurors must reach a decision beyond reasonable doubt and aggravating circumstances have to outweigh mitigating circumstances.

"Juries are asked to make very difficult decisions," Horton said. "All 12 have to agree. If they don't, it can't be the death penalty."

e-mail: romboy@desnews.com