Ron Lafferty’s death by natural causes while on death row ought to spark an important statewide discussion about the death penalty, framed by these questions:

Behind the death of Ron Lafferty, Utah’s most infamous death row inmate
  • Why was this notorious killer allowed to sit in prison for 34 years despite the evidence against him and a retrial that resulted in a second conviction? His last appeal was rejected by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in August, and yet when he died, he did not have an execution date scheduled.
  • Are there better ways to determine mental competency?
  • Can the emergence of reliable DNA testing speed up the appeals process and lead to quicker justice?
  • Do Utahns still want the death penalty as a legal option? 
  • How much would taxpayers have saved in legal costs if Lafferty, like his brother, Dan, had received a life sentence? Is the difference worth it?
  • Can the death penalty be administered in a way that is humane and befitting a nation ruled by laws and not vengeance? While a nationwide debate rages about lethal injections, Lafferty had chosen to die by a firing squad.

Much of the nation already is engaged in a debate that revolves mostly around mistaken guilt. The Innocence Project has succeeded in casting doubt on the guilt of many death row inmates, using DNA evidence.

Lafferty’s guilt, however, was beyond reasonable doubt. 

Ron and his brother Dan were convicted in 1985 of killing their sister-in-law and her 15-month-old daughter. A jury decided unanimously that Ron should be executed. The appeals began immediately, and Ron lost all the way to the state Supreme Court. However, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his conviction, ruling that the lower court judge had used the wrong standards to find him mentally competent to stand trial. 

He later was determined to be competent and underwent a second trial in 1996, where he once again was found guilty of a capital offense and sentenced to die. His brother, however, was sentenced to life in prison.

Given that Lafferty’s appeals were more about competence than evidence or facts, it’s not clear what role DNA might have played, given that it can’t determine sanity. The overriding issue, however, is that 23 years have passed since his last conviction. Utahns ought to wonder why the sentence wasn’t carried out.

The two key questions are 1) Was justice served by what amounted to serving a life sentence in prison? and 2) Is there a need for the death penalty?

The two key questions are 1) Was justice served by what amounted to serving a life sentence in prison? and 2) Is there a need for the death penalty?

A study by Utah’s Legislative Fiscal Analyst’s office in 2012 found that death row cases cost $1.6 million more per inmate than a sentence of life without parole. It would be fair to ask Utahns whether that cost is worth the effort, especially given cases such as Lafferty’s.

No other government power is as important as that over life and death. Where legislatures have allowed capital punishment, it’s understandable that legal precautions and an appeals process is taken seriously. When the punishment is irreversible, mistakes are unacceptable.

But it is reasonable to ask whether the process can be made both more reliable and more humane for all involved, including the families of victims.

At the very least, state lawmakers should begin that discussion.