The latest filings in a new hearing for one of Utah’s death row inmates is raising concerns and stirring debate on Utah’s Capitol Hill as lawmakers consider whether to do away with the state’s death penalty.
While some Republican supporters of Utah’s capital punishment have said they have confidence in Utah’s justice system — contending the Beehive State has not seen the same issues other states have had with the death penalty — the penalty’s detractors say the case’s latest filings indicate Utah is not immune to problems with the finality of a death sentence, especially when new revelations surface sometimes decades later.
Among those alleged revelations that are causing concern in this case? Douglas Stewart Carter, who is Black, was convicted and sentenced using testimony from star witnesses who his defense attorneys say were threatened, paid thousands of dollars and told to lie by the Provo Police Department in the 1980s. Almost three years ago, the Utah Supreme Court ordered that Carter receive a new evidence hearing in 4th District Court, pointing to “damning revelations” from those witnesses.
Carter, 66, is among the seven men currently sitting on Utah’s death row. He’s been there for 35 years after he was convicted of aggravated murder for stabbing and shooting a Provo grandmother, 57-year-old Eva Olesen, who was also the aunt of a former Provo police chief.
Late last month Carter’s defense team submitted its post-hearing brief to the court asking that his conviction be thrown out — or at least his death sentence overturned. The Utah Attorney General’s Office has until mid-March to respond.
Case ‘strikes at the heart’ of Utah’s death penalty debate
Connor Boyack, president of the Utah-based libertarian think tank Libertas Institute — which is among the organizations backing the repeal and replace effort — told the Deseret News the latest filing in the Carter case raises concerning questions about Carter’s conviction and death sentence.
While the case is still playing out in court, Boyack said it “strikes right at the heart of the issue” of the finality of the death penalty, “in showing that we should never foreclose the opportunity for new revelations to come to light that might exonerate someone who was actually innocent — or even if they’re not innocent” since the case may ultimately not result in the factors needed to justify a death penalty.
“The Carter brief in particular,” Boyack said, “for pages and pages it says, ‘Here’s all these new revelations,’ and had a jury known about this or about this or about this, then it’s possible — I would argue likely — that at least one juror would have voted for life (in prison rather than the death penalty) had they known that.”
“That is why we’re going to be talking a lot about this case,” Boyack said. “Because it’s the permanence of the death penalty that prevents those new revelations from coming to light.”
It’s possible that evidence and arguments brought forth by Carter’s defense attorneys could ultimately show Utah got Carter’s sentence — and possibly his conviction — wrong, Boyack said.
“As we’ve worked on this issue over the years, the attorney general’s office has long claimed, and many have believed, that Utah is somehow immune from the problems experienced in other states with the criminal justice and the death penalty specifically,” Boyack said. “That claim being, ‘We don’t have any innocent people (on death row), Utah does it right.’”
Boyack pointed out that 18 individuals have been exonerated in Utah. Though not capital cases, that alone shows “clearly there are issues with innocent people being convicted of crimes they did not commit.”
“And now with the Carter case it’s quite possible that this individual is factually innocent of the crime he was sentenced to die for committing,” Boyack said. “That doesn’t mean he’s a good person ... he might be a total scumbag. But, nevertheless, it may be that this guy that’s been on death row for 35 years should not be on death row at all.”
Boyack said the case “really taints the claims” by death penalty supporters that Utah is insulated from the issues other states have seen.
Nationally, 185 people on death row have been exonerated, according to the Innocence Project. The number of people whose lives were taken before they were able to prove their innocence is unknown.
“The frank reality is Utah is not immune to these problems,” Boyack said. “Carter’s in particular shows signs of police abuse, prosecutorial misconduct and violations of constitutional protections. ... Our system isn’t perfect, and that’s exactly why we’ve been saying we shouldn’t be killing people because we may find out years later, ‘Oh crap. They were actually innocent.’”
Boyack says even he supports the death penalty “in theory” for “horrible people.” But “I don’t trust the government to get it right.”
“How can we with any certainty support a permanent policy that down the road might be shown to be the wrong thing?” Boyack said. “That to me is the warning of Carter’s case and these new revelations.
“We should not be making permanent policy decisions because we’re imperfect, fallible people sometimes shown to corruption and abuse, as apparently happened in Carter’s case decades ago, and for that reason explicitly we should always leave room for correction,” he said. “But if the person’s dead, you can’t do that.”
The case for Utah’s capital punishment
The bill to repeal and replace Utah’s death penalty, HB147, is slated for a committee hearing on Monday, the first legislative challenge for this year’s iteration of the bill to overcome. But it’s not facing an easy path.
Two of the Utah House’s top Republican leaders, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, told reporters last week they personally oppose the bill, though they welcome the debate.
“I look at the people that are on death row in Utah, and it makes me sick to my stomach,” Schultz said. “These are the worst of the worst offenders.”
Schultz also expressed his confidence in Utah’s justice system.
“I get that there’s probably been some things around the country that would make people question the death penalty, but I think we’ve got a pretty fair process in the state of Utah.”
Schultz on Thursday did not respond to a request for comment for this story when asked specifically about Carter’s case.
The Utah Attorney General’s office also stands against repealing the death penalty. Tom Brunker, assistant solicitor general in the Utah Attorney General’s Office, called the death penalty an “appropriate punishment for the worst of the worst of the worst violent criminals — those who commit violent unspeakable crimes.”
While death penalty opponents say the death penalty and its often decadeslong appeals process offers only a false sense of justice and retraumatizes victims’ loved ones, Brunker argues doing away with it won’t prevent litigation — but add to it.
“Worse,” Brunker said, “repealing the death penalty will add many years of delay to the existing cases, exacerbating the pain the victims’ family members are already suffering. And there will be little savings on the other end — Utah hasn’t imposed a death sentence in more than 14 years.”
Stirring debate on Capitol Hill
Boyack said he in recent days has begun discussing Carter’s case with lawmakers on Utah’s Capitol Hill, starting with members of the House Law Enforcement Committee that’s slated to consider the bill Monday afternoon.
As lawmakers learn of the case and the questions it raises, “it is a stunning revelation for even legislators who are opposed to the bill,” Boyack said.
“I think once the word gets out more broadly it’s going to cause some reflection for some people who have been so certain about their position and certain about the unimpeachability of Utah’s criminal justice system as it pertains to the death penalty.”
Two influential conservative Republicans are spearheading this year’s effort to repeal Utah’s death penalty and replace it with a new sentence of 45 years to life in prison: Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, and Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton.
Snow told the Deseret News on Thursday he was not fully familiar with the latest filings of the Carter case, but he said it does raise questions relevant to the larger debate about Utah’s death penalty.
“We want to believe that we do things better here,” Snow said. “And in many ways we do. Having been a prosecutor, I still think Utah’s criminal justice system is a good one and it works well. But it’s not perfect.”
Snow said Utah’s system, like those in other states, is “subject to the limitations and frailties of us as mortals.”
“When it comes to imposing a death sentence and carrying it out, we are ... mortals using our best evidence and best judgment possible,” he said. “But we’re still human. And it’s subject to error.”
Contributing: Pat Reavy