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4 county attorneys in Utah call for end to death penalty

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, left, discusses the death penalty in Utah.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, left, discusses the death penalty in Utah at the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, as Utah County Attorney David Leavitt looks on.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Calling it "a false hope," "a big lie" and a "fraud," the attorneys of three counties in Utah — two Democrats and a Republican — stood together Tuesday to call on state lawmakers to eliminate the death penalty.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt and Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson all announced they had signed an open letter, along with Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan, who was not present, calling on Gov. Spencer Cox and the Utah Legislature to repeal the state's death penalty statute and replace it with a penalty of 45 years to life.

"It has failed to deter violent crime," Gill said. "Available evidence shows that the death penalty does not have a deterring effect. It does not prevent people from committing murder or other violent crimes."

In their letter, the four county attorneys called the death penalty a "grave defect" in Utah law that creates a liability for victims of violent crime, the due process of defendants, and for the public good. The group also laid out their reasons for calling for a repeal of the death penalty, saying that:

  • It does not deter violent crime.
  • There is a racial inequity in how it is applied.
  • Victims are retraumatized because of how many years a death penalty case can be appealed before being carried out.

"Instead of the death penalty providing closure to victims, the constitutional appeals that follow mean a death sentence will take decades to impose if it ever happens," Olson said. "Since the year 2000, more men have died of old age on death row than by execution."

Other reasons the group says the death penalty should be repealed include the cost incurred by the government and taxpayers to pay for appeals, which is more expensive than a person sentenced to life in prison, and a sentence of death is irreversible. The group said that's a concern because research has shown that 1 out every 10 people who are executed is later found to be innocent and exonerated.

"If a pilot was good only 90% of the time at landing the plane, we would say that person shouldn't be flying," Gill said.

Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, left, and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, right, listen as Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson discusses the death penalty in Utah at the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, as Utah County Attorney David Leavitt looks on.
Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, left, and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, right, listen as Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson discusses the death penalty in Utah at the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, as Utah County Attorney David Leavitt looks on.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Tuesday's announcement comes on the heels of two Republican lawmakers, Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, and Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who announced they would be sponsoring a bill that would repeal the death penalty and replace it with a new sentence of 45 years to life in prison for those convicted of aggravated murder.

Gill said he and the other prosecutors worked with the lawmakers to draft the bill. He said the key is the 45-years-to-life sentence.

Currently, a person convicted of aggravated murder in Utah can be sentenced to death, life in prison without the possibility of parole, or a term of 25 years to life in prison. Gill said it wouldn't work simply to eliminate the death penalty without replacing it with another possible sentence.

"I've talked to far too many victims who just said, '25 to life? That's all we can look forward to?' So, it was a very deliberate number that I chose, which was 45 to life. That says, this takes this matter seriously. That recognizes the seriousness of the harm and the kind of accountability that victims are looking for. And it will age somebody out so that they will never be able to commit that type of offense again," he said.

As for the notion that prosecutors need the death penalty as a bargaining tool to get those charged with murder to agree to a plea deal and avoid a trial, both Gill and Leavitt said that's simply not true.

"If prosecutors are using it as a bargaining chip, which means coercion, then it is an abuse of our criminal justice system. No government agency, nobody should be able to beat you over the head into a disposition. I think anybody who says it is a bargaining chip is actually confirming the injustice of the system," Gill said.

"Do we really want to live in a society where the government will threaten to kill us unless we agree to spend the rest of our life in prison, and at the same time we allow the government not to prove its case against us?" Leavitt added.

When Gill last ran for office in 2018, he declined to say whether he opposed or approved of the death penalty, though he said he struggled with it. At the time he said he believed Utah lawmakers should consider winnowing the circumstances allowing prosecutors to pursue the death penalty to only a handful of aggravating factors — including targeting police for murder, carrying out mass killings and child abuse deaths.

And in 2019, when Leavitt announced he would seek the death penalty against Jerrod William Baum, a man accused of murdering a young couple, he said the cost of Baum's defense would top $1 million and Baum may never be executed, but said the case was deserving of the county's resources.

Last week, Leavitt filed a motion withdrawing the death penalty as an option in the Baum case and announced he would no longer seek the death penalty in any case his office prosecutes. Although he did not specifically name Baum, Leavitt said Tuesday that he has had four prosecutors working full-time on one death penalty case for two years and there is still no trial date set. Even if he had left the option of the death penalty on the table for that case, Leavitt said, "In no amount of good faith will it ever be carried out."

Leavitt said it is up to his office to decide what is best for the community's protection. What the public doesn't see is all the other murder and sex offense cases his office is simultaneously prosecuting with limited resources, he said.

"Why seek something that will never be carried out? Why spend the type of resources when you know it's never going to happen?" Leavitt said of the death penalty.

When asked whether prosecutors should consider the wishes of the families of victims who want a death sentence, Gill said he has found that only a small fraction of people are willing to see the long process carried through to fruition.

"I think there is an assumption that all victims want that. But when we sit down and we start to talk to them about the fact that at the moment that a death sentence is uttered, it is not the end but rather it is the beginning of 25- to 30-year conversation where they will be retraumatized, where the defendant will become the hero and where the loved one will be lost in that equation," Gill said.

What the families really want is accountability and to be able to move on knowing that a defendant will no longer be able to hurt someone, he said.

Olson gave the example of Von Lester Taylor, the lone person currently on death row in her county. Taylor was convicted of killing a mother and her daughter in 1990 and sentenced to death. But after 30 years of appeals, his conviction was overturned in 2020, further traumatizing the family, Olson said. In July, his conviction and death sentence were reinstated.

When asked whether they would be following Leavitt in declaring that their offices will no longer seek the death penalty, both Gill and Olson said they will wait first to see what action the Legislature takes and for now will apply the law as it is written.