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About Utah: Dealing death from the 'Dove'

There is a scene in "Lonesome Dove" involving a gang of thrill-killing horse thieves, led by a lowlife degenerate named Dan Suggs, who have recently murdered a farmer named Wilbarger and have been caught napping by the redoubtable former Texas Rangers Captain Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae.

Suggs and them have been tied up, at which point we'll let Larry McMurtry's narrative take over:

"Saddle these men's horses," Call said to the boy. Then he walked off toward the nearest trees.

"Where's he going?" Roy Suggs asked, finding his voice at last.

"Gone to pick a tree to hang you from, son," Augustus said mildly. He turned to Dan Suggs, who looked at him with his teeth bared in a snarl. "I don't know what makes you think we'd tote you all the way to a jail," Gus said.

"I tell you we bought them horses!" Dan said.

"Oh, drop your bluff," Augustus said. "I buried Wilbarger myself, not to mention his two cowboys."

Call and McCrae weren't much on by-the-book justice, but they sure knew how to deploy the death penalty.

This, of course, is in sharp contrast to the modern day, when the average stay on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, is 12.7 years.

Ronnie Lee Gardner, the convicted murderer scheduled to die by firing squad Friday at the Utah State Prison, has nearly doubled that number. He was first sentenced to die in late 1985. If his execution goes off Friday as planned, he will have spent nearly 25 years, just slightly more than half his life, waiting to die.

People who kill in an instant, almost without thinking — Gardner's two victims, a bartender and a lawyer doing work in the courthouse, were dispatched in the blink of an eye for merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time — are themselves dispatched only after every consideration is exhausted as to why they shouldn't be.

It can, and usually does, take decades.

First, there's an automatic stay of execution, which can be extended indefinitely by writs ranging from habeas corpus to certiorari and motions ranging from remitter to additur.

The condemned are spared by Latin.

A good lawyer can be worth 20 years. A bad lawyer can sometimes be worth even more than that. One death row inmate in Florida, Albert Holland, recently had his stay extended because his lawyer missed deadlines for filing Holland's appeals. Missing the deadlines lengthened his life.

Opponents of the death penalty point out that not only does the process take a lot of time, it takes a lot of money. The aforementioned Death Penalty Information Center — definitely an "against" organization — contends that one state, New Jersey, abolished the death penalty after calculating that each execution, when you added up all the court fees and increased incarceration expenses, cost taxpayers an average of $37 million.

Proponents, on the other hand, counter that the deterrent effect of the death penalty outweighs all the costs. If just one life is saved as a result of putting killers to death, it's worth it. And if a lengthy process is required to make sure everything is handled properly, so be it.

Still, 25 years is a long time to be condemned. Ronnie Lee Gardner has lived under a death threat since the "Dukes of Hazzard" was on TV and Bush was president — the first one.

In 1996, about in the middle of Gardner's long and legal appeals process, the federal government passed a law, the Effective Death Penalty Act, that was intended to help speed things up. If it did, it's been negligible.

The bottom line: Even after you've been caught red-handed, tried, convicted and sentenced, it takes a long time to die in America.

For all concerned — victims, the condemned and the courts — that would seem to qualify as cruel and unusual punishment.

Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com.