Utah is ready to abolish the death penalty, author and activist Bryan Stevenson told lawmakers this week.
“Utah is a state where no one has been sentenced to death for a crime that’s taken place anytime in the last 20 years,” he said Wednesday, yet the state has still spent millions of dollars on litigation and appeals for those sentenced to death previously.
Stevenson — who published the best-selling memoir “Just Mercy” in 2014 and founded the Equal Justice Initiative to eliminate excessive and unfair sentencing — visited Capitol Hill to discuss capital punishment in Utah.
Utah’s death penalty statute has been targeted previously by lawmakers, but efforts to abolish it have failed in the House of Representatives in 2016 and 2018. This year, Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, is sponsoring HB147, to prohibit the state from seeking the death penalty and adds a possible sentence for aggravated murder of 45 years to life.
The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, who said he has changed his mind on the issue.
Prior to a closed-door meeting with Gov. Spencer Cox, Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson, Stevenson spoke publicly alongside Snow and McCay to address their legislation.
“I actually think that the death penalty is an obstacle to creating public safety,” Stevenson said. “(Utah) can really start thinking about the ways we can use those millions of dollars to provide more care and services to victims, to enhance law enforcement efforts around promoting public safety and to just generally create a culture that affirms the importance of life, diversity and justice.”
Many supporters of the death penalty cite the need to provide justice and closure to victims’ families, Stevenson said, but in his experience, the drawn-out process of appeals actually prolongs the suffering.
“I can’t tell you how many times in the discussions I’ve had with folks on this issue they’ve described how important it is that we get justice and — in our state right now — we’re not able to do that for families,” Snow said. “That’s part of the struggle victims are having.”
The most prominent death penalty case in Utah was that of Ron Lafferty, who was on death row for 34 years before he died in prison in 2019. Lafferty was convicted alongside his brother, Dan Lafferty, for killing Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, on July 24, 1984. The brothers claimed they were following a revelation from God, and slashed the throats of both victims in their home in American Fork.
Brenda’s sister, Sharon Wright Weeks, was 15 years old at the time of the murders and has recently been outspoken in opposition to the death penalty. She initially hoped to see Ron Lafferty executed, but instead said she was tormented for decades as hearings dragged on with no results.
“I don’t want another human to suffer what I know will be their suffering,” she told the Deseret News in October. “If a death sentence is given, it will start the process of their own personal hell.”
She said the litigation process was like “being shackled to the person who so brutally took your family members.”
Stevenson pointed out that in many cases justice is not equivalent to the crime committed and said the death penalty is a flawed approach to justice.
“We don’t hire someone to torture people who have been convicted of torture. We wouldn’t think it’s appropriate ... to have a state agent rape someone who has been convicted of rape,” he said. “That would be unconscionable to do that.”
“We believe very much in mercy and redemption and justice. ... We should be better than the people in our society who commit the worst crimes,” Stevenson continued. “I’ve never understood the logic of killing people to show that killing is wrong.”
If HB147 passes, individuals convicted for aggravated murder could still face 45 years to life in prison, which Stevenson said is by no means a “soft sentence.”
“Most countries in the world don’t have life without parole,” he said, because “it’s an extremely harsh sentence. ... That’s why I feel like we’re not going to give away anything we’re trying to achieve with being tough and being strong and being responsive when people commit horrific and violent crimes.”
Will lawmakers vote to abolish capital punishment?
In October, a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found that 51% of Utahns oppose eliminating the death penalty. That number appears to be down significantly from a 2010 poll which found 79% of Utahns strongly or somewhat favored the death penalty.
Senate leaders were asked earlier in the day about their support of the bill. Adams was reluctant to hint whether he supports the bill but said he was open to discussion.
“This is a tough, tough issue,” he said. “I’ve seen the challenge that comes from hideous crimes that are very, very difficult to understand. And the victims have a right in this also, as to what they feel. ... It’s a difficult process. It probably needs to be updated or looked at, so I’m open to discussion and listening very closely.”
“I’ve always been opposed to getting rid of the death penalty,” said Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, adding that his respect for Snow has made him open to a conversation. “Maybe my thoughts can change.”
Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said her caucus is in favor of eliminating the death penalty, claiming a potential bid for the Olympics would face better odds if it was.
“There are certain things in the global market, in the global economy that I think are hurting Utah for having that in our statute,” she said.
Stevenson argued that abolishing capital punishment is a somewhat bipartisan issue because it’s more than just a social justice initiative — it’s fiscally responsible and prevents the government from overreaching on an issue of life or death.
“We have a lot of Republicans across the country who not only reject this idea that we have to have a death penalty, but have elevated this notion that if we think we can’t trust government with dictating health policy — helping us decide whether we should wear a mask or get vaccinated or not — why do we trust them to determine who should live and who should die?” he said.
Colorado, Virginia and New Hampshire have all abolished their death penalty statutes since 2020, Stevenson said, in part because lawmakers think it’s “time to ... stop wasting our time being distracted by the death penalty, which consumes all of the air in the room,” but has infrequent applications in reality.
Snow cited a study by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice that found the state has spent $40 million on prosecuting 160 death penalty cases — only two of which resulted in a death sentence.
“I think about what we could do with that money to support victims’ families,” Snow said.
Only four people have been executed in Utah since 1990, the most recent being Ronnie Lee Gardner who was executed by firing squad on June 18, 2010.