PROVO — Prosecutors in Utah County have announced they will seek the death penalty for the man charged with killing a young couple and dumping their bodies in an abandoned mine shaft in 2017.
"My decision is to allow the death penalty to be considered in this case," Utah County Attorney David Leavitt said at a Wednesday news conference in Provo.
Leavitt said a jury will ultimately decide the fate of Jerrod William Baum, accused of slitting the throats of Riley Powell, 18, and Brelynne "Breezy" Otteson, 17, before discarding their bodies.
The teens' family members have called for the death penalty for 42-year-old Baum, of the tiny central Utah town of Mammoth, if he is convicted.
Baum has pleaded not guilty to two counts of aggravated murder, a first-degree felony.
"If pulling a trigger or injecting a needle would bring Breezy and Riley back, I would do so personally," Leavitt said. His decision is based not just on pursuing justice for the teens but also protecting the public, he told reporters and others.
Leavitt said he did not make the announcement in order to secure a plea deal that would send Baum to prison for life with no possibility of parole, and called such a tack "morally repugnant" and a misuse of plea bargains. When pressed on whether he would take the death penalty off the table if Baum were to admit to the charges, he declined to give a definitive answer.
"I'm not going to engage in plea negotiations in the middle of a press conference," Leavitt said. "I will say that I am not charging the death penalty in order to get him to plead guilty."
During the news conference, Leavitt, a Republican, called the criminal justice system "completely out of balance" and said most cases are resolved in plea deals instead of trials, a trend he believes grants prosecutors too much power.
Though the cost of Baum's defense will top $1 million and he may never be executed, Leavitt said the case is deserving of the county's resources. He noted the last person to receive a death sentence in Utah County was Ron Lafferty, convicted in the slayings of his sister-in-law Brenda Lafferty and her baby in 1984.
Otteson's aunt, Amanda Hunt, said the potential for a death sentence for Baum has been "the one thing we were sure of" and is part of a continued fight for the teens that began with search parties combing the desert near Eureka in Juab County.
"We are in it for the long haul," including through rounds of possible appeals, Hunt said.
At a preliminary hearing in March, Baum's former girlfriend, Morgan Henderson, testified in vivid detail how he became enraged to find the teens at his home on Dec. 30, 2017, then brought her and the couple to an abandoned mine shaft where he slit the teens' throats and discarded their bodies. Almost three months later, crews found their bodies.
Henderson agreed to testify against Baum in exchange for resolving charges that she lied to investigators.
Leavitt emphasized his county is tasked with both prosecuting and funding Baum's defense under Utah's public defender system, though the alleged crimes took place roughly a mile from the Juab County border.
In all, eight people remain on death row in Utah after the natural death of convicted killer and death row inmate Floyd Maestas at the Utah State Prison last year.
The state has not carried out an execution since 2010, when convicted murder Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by a firing squad.
Baum is due back in court Aug. 12.