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Support for the death penalty waning in Utah, study says

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The Utah State Prison in Draper, Wednesday, March 5, 2014.

The Utah State Prison in Draper, Wednesday, March 5, 2014.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A new study about the costs and public opinions concerning the death penalty in Utah suggests support for capital punishment may be waning in the state.

But perhaps more than anything, the study released Friday by the state's Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice highlights the complexities of trying to evaluate the expense and impact of the death penalty.

From June 2016 to July 2017, the 13-person working group considered the costs and public opinions associated with the death penalty, as well as the aggravating factors that push a crime to a capital level, victims' rights and practices in other states.

In most of the areas it focused on, the working group came up inconclusive.

While Utahns have traditionally viewed the death penalty favorably, the study notes, five polls about the issue over the past three years yielded somewhat inconsistent results.

Three polls by Dan Jones & Associates, an in-state pollster, showed half to two-thirds of Utahns surveyed favor the death penalty, the study states. However, two polls by Public Policy Polling, an out-of-state company, showed less support for the death penalty, with more than half of respondents supporting replacing it.

Based on those findings, the working group concluded, "It is probably reasonable to suggest simply that public support for the death penalty in Utah is declining over previous highs, based on national data and consistently lower support from younger respondents in the Utah polls."

Regarding the costs of death penalty cases in Utah, the study pointed to two previous evaluations. The Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found last year that over 20 years, the state spent nearly $40 million prosecuting 165 death-penalty eligible cases, two of which ended in executions.

That translates to an extra $237,900 spent on each case as compared to a murder case, the study states.

A 2012 evaluation by the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst estimated that from trial to execution, a death penalty case in Utah costs nearly $1.7 million more than a case ending instead in life in prison without parole, the commission's study notes.

The findings prompted Utah Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty to call Friday for lawmakers to take a closer look at the costs of capital punishment in the state.

"This report should give pause to anyone who thought that because capital punishment is so rarely used in Utah that the cost of maintaining a death penalty would be negligible," said Kevin Greene, the organization's state director. "We have been spending tons of money without much in return and we hope lawmakers will closely examine the report and agree that the death penalty is anything but fiscally conservative."

The Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice study did not reach any conclusions regarding limiting or expanding aggravating factors that would make a case eligible for the death penalty. It also did not make any findings about the impacts on the rights of victims in capital cases, and noted without further conclusion that states across the nation are moving away from the death penalty.