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Some conservative Utah lawmakers favor abolishing death penalty

Some conservative Utah lawmakers appear poised to start talking about abolishing the death penalty.
Some conservative Utah lawmakers appear poised to start talking about abolishing the death penalty.

SALT LAKE CITY — Some conservative Utah lawmakers appear poised to start talking about abolishing the death penalty.

Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, held a discussion on the thorny issue Wednesday, noting his "evolving position."

"I'd pull the switch if I knew that the person was guilty. I have no problem with eye for an eye," he told the Judiciary Interim Committee, which he heads. "But it is not a conservative value to have blind, slavish faith in government."

Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, asked the Republican-controlled Legislature earlier this year to study the issue.

Utah has executed seven men since the nationwide moratorium on the death penalty was lifted in 1976, the last one being Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010. Four died by lethal injection and three by firing squad.

Condemned killers can no longer choose the firing squad in Utah, but this year lawmakers restored that option if the drugs necessary for lethal injection can't be obtained within 30 days of a scheduled execution.

Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, looked at capital punishment in terms of financial costs three years ago. Legislative fiscal analysts calculated that it costs taxpayers $1.6 million for a death row inmate to exhaust the appeals process.

"It costs more for the endless appeals than for life without the possibility of parole," Handy said, adding that he has pondered the morality of the death penalty for many years.

Utahns, he said, don't think much about it because executions don't happen often in the state.

"I don’t see, I'm going to say unfortunately, too much of an appetite to ban the death penalty," Handy said.

Rep. Dixon Pitcher, R-Ogden, questioned whether a killer sentenced to life in prison would give up the appeals.

"Nothing stops them from appealing what's been handed down to them," he said. "They've got a lot of years, and they need a project."

Pitcher referenced two men executed for torturing and killing three people in the Ogden Hi-Fi Shop 40 years ago. He said they were clearly guilty and that he didn't have "any problems seeing these people dispatched."

Jensie Anderson, a University of Utah law professor and legal director at the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, suggested that if lawmakers don't want to repeal the death penalty, they impose a moratorium while they study the issue.

There is "irrefutable" proof that innocent people are convicted and condemned to die, she said, adding that about 4 percent of murder cases end in wrongful convictions.

Democrats on the committee were unequivocal in their opposition to capital punishment.

"I believe that it has no redeeming value," said Rep. Mark Wheately, D-Murray. "I don't believe the state should be involved in revenge."

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he realized one night before an execution 20 years ago that he and all Utahns had a small part in it.

"I have to tell you, it made me uncomfortable. It bothered me at some level," King said, adding that the death penalty contributes to the "coarsening" of society.


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