clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Utah legislator wants mandatory death penalty when police are targeted, killed

FILE: With the shooting deaths of two Iowa police officers bolstering his resolve, a Utah legislator (Paul Ray, above) is proposing a mandatory death penalty clause for anyone convicted of targeting and killing a cop.
FILE: With the shooting deaths of two Iowa police officers bolstering his resolve, a Utah legislator (Paul Ray, above) is proposing a mandatory death penalty clause for anyone convicted of targeting and killing a cop.
Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — With the shooting deaths of two Iowa police officers bolstering his resolve, a Utah legislator is proposing a mandatory death penalty clause for anyone convicted of targeting and killing a cop.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, is drafting legislation that would enhance the penalties for anyone who specifically targets and assaults a police officer. A first draft of the bill is complete but not yet available, Ray said, and a number of questions remain about how the change would work.

Regardless, the legislator is insistent that stiffer consequences are necessary to prevent increasingly common attacks on officers.

When he received a news alert early Wednesday about the fatal ambush of two officers in Des Moines, Ray said he became "furious" and even more committed to stepping up the law in Utah.

"These are guys who knowingly, every day, go to a job they know they may not return from," Ray said. "And then you've got cowards that are going out and targeting these guys, trying to make sure they don't go home to their families."

Urbandale police officer Justin Martin, 24, and Des Moines Police Sgt. Anthony Beminio, 39, were gunned down shortly after 1 a.m. as they sat in their patrol cars, The Associated Press reported. The suspected shooter, 46-year-old Scott Michael Greene, surrendered hours later when he flagged down a Department of Natural Resources employee on a rural road west of the city.

Ray said he began drafting his bill following attacks on police in July. Five officers were shot and killed by a sniper in Dallas, and three others were gunned down in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as they responded to calls of a man prowling the streets with a rifle.

The legislation focuses on deliberate attacks that single out officers rather than assaults on police during the commission of other crimes, Ray said. He acknowledged that work remains to define what constitutes "targeting" an officer and how it would be proved under the law.

Ray's bill would create a two-step penalty enhancement for anyone convicted of targeting an officer in an assault, elevating a third-degree felony offense to a first-degree felony, for example. And in cases where the officer is killed, he is proposing mandatory pursuit of the death penalty, meaning district attorneys would no longer be able to choose whether to pursue capital punishment.

Under current Utah law, murder of a law enforcement officer is an aggravated crime, meaning it is eligible for the death penalty if prosecutors choose to pursue it and a jury chooses to impose it.

Ray says his bill keeps the jury phase for capital punishment sentencing and instead addresses the way charges are initially filed when an officer is shot and killed.

"The thing that I'm tired of is on these high-profile cases — and I know the DAs are going to argue the other direction, and I get it — but they just plea them out," Ray said. "I want an ultimate penalty. If you target, you kill a police officer, you need to pay with your own life."

In the case of Timothy Troy Walker, who shot and killed Draper Police Sgt. Derek Johnson in 2014 when the officer stopped to check whether Walker had been in an accident, Walker pleaded guilty to the murder to avoid the death penalty.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, while expressing support for a penalty enhancement, should it pass, voiced concern Wednesday about the death penalty mandate.

Requiring prosecutors to pursue capital punishment takes away their ability to evaluate the strength of evidence and witnesses as the case progresses, Gill said.

"Would we want to force a trial even if the case starts to deteriorate and risk losing the case?" he asked.

It also overrides the wishes of the victim's family, forcing them to endure a trial and years of appeals, even if they would rather close the case quickly through a plea bargain.

"I have had cases where this residual burden was too much for the family members to endure," Gill said.

A penalty enhancement, however, "would certainly send a strong message as public policy that we will not tolerate targeting law enforcement officers," he said.

Paul Cassell, University of Utah law professor and a former federal judge, also praised the idea of a penalty enhancement but worried about the capital punishment requirement.

Cassell commended the way district and county attorneys in Utah have prosecuted murders of police officers, saying that unless there is a proven issue with how the cases are being handled, there's no need to change the law.

He also cited the financial costs of death penalty cases and appeals — legislative analysts said last year that death penalty cases cost Utahns $1.6 million more on average than a life without parole case — and noted that there's no guarantee a capital case will end with someone being put to death.

"I applaud the sentiment here that we do need to do everything we can to protect our law enforcement officers, but the devil is going to be in the details in coming up with something that really would make a difference here," Cassell said. "Sadly, many of the people who are attacking law enforcement officers are not likely to be deterred by changes in criminal penalty."

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com

Twitter: McKenzieRomero