Why the bill to end Utah’s death penalty is facing a tough legislative battleground
Top Republican House leaders say they personally oppose bill. Utah Attorney General’s office also stands against it.
The mounting effort to repeal and replace Utah’s death penalty could be headed for some trouble in the Utah House of Representatives.
Though backers of the repeal and replacement bill, HB147, include some influential conservative Republican lawmakers and the compelling voice of Sharon Wright Weeks, the sister and aunt of Ron Lafferty’s victims, two of the Utah House’s most powerful legislative leaders say they’re not supportive of doing away with Utah’s death penalty. And the Utah Attorney General’s Office also opposes it.
“I’m personally not supportive of removing the death penalty as an option,” House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told reporters in a media availability in his office on Friday.
However, the speaker added both sides of the debate are compelling. He said it’s likely to get a committee hearing, perhaps next week.
“I could sit in here and argue both sides of this for an hour,” he said. “I think it’s a valid question to ask when you give government this power, and it’s worth evaluating. But I’m personally a no.”
House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, said he shared the speaker’s opinion. He acknowledged the national debate around the death penalty and whether it’s worth its costs, but expressed his confidence in Utah’s process for the state’s worst offenders.
“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. 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 said it’s “worrisome to me” of the prospect of removing the death penalty as a prosecution tool, “because a lot of times prosecutors use that as a way to get criminals to talk and help them solve cases.”
In addition to the House’s top legislative leaders, Utah’s top prosecuting office is also positioning itself against repealing the state’s 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.”
Brunker said doing away with the death penalty won’t prevent litigation — but actually add to it.
“Repealing the death penalty won’t eradicate prolonged and repetitive litigation,” he said. “The review process is the same in all cases, and there are many non-death cases where the convicted persons file endless petitions for review.
“Worse,” he added, “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.”
The debate for and against repealing Utah’s death penalty
If it wins approval, HB147 would repeal Utah’s death penalty and replace it with a new law — one that would give prosecutors a new bargaining chip in its place in their pursuit of plea deals: a sentence for aggravated murder of 45 years to life in prison.
A reporter asked Wilson and Schultz about death penalty opponents’ arguments that capital punishment causes more harm than good by re-traumatizing victims, is expensive, and doesn’t actually bring justice because offenders often sit on death row for decades while exhausting their legal appeals options.
They’re all issues that Weeks has raised as reasons why she now opposes the death penalty, even though she initially wanted Lafferty to die by execution for his brutal murder of her sister and niece. Lafferty, though he was on Utah’s death row for 34 years, never died by execution. He died in prison at the age of 78 of natural causes.
Wilson called it a “great question,” and noted lawmakers are likely to debate those very issues as they consider the bill.
Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, also voiced his opposition to repealing Utah’s death penalty.
“In my district, the death penalty has been used — as horrible as the circumstances were — in ways that have brought healing, if you can ever really find it,” Snider said.
Snider pointed to the brutal murder and rape of 5-year-old Lizzy Shelley in 2019.
Her uncle, Alexander William Whipple, was sentenced to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole for the crime. After Lizzy was reported missing, Whipple faced a charge of capital murder and eventually agreed to tell his attorney where his niece’s body was in exchange for prosecutors agreeing not to seek the death penalty. Police found Lizzy’s remains a half-block away from her home, covered by dirt, sticks and other debris, bringing a five-day search to an end.
“Because of that agreement, because we have these tools in place, they brought Lizzy home so they could at least have some semblance of a funeral,” Snider said. “So no, I do not in any way shape or form support repeal of the death penalty.”
Does the bill stand a chance?
Asked where the larger House GOP caucus stands on the issue, Wilson said they have not taken a position on it.
If or when the bill makes it to the House floor, Schultz said it’s likely to be a tough debate with narrow voting margins.
“It’ll be close,” Schultz told the Deseret News after media availability. “It’s pretty split.”
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 on Friday the comments from House leadership doesn’t deter him.
“All we’re interested in from legislative leadership is a fair process to have a debate and let the chips fall where they may,” he said.
The bill is expected to receive a hearing in the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, perhaps by the end of next week, Boyack said.
“We respectfully understand that we’re not going to get everyone’s votes, including the speaker and the majority leader; that’s totally understandable,” Boyack said. “We’ve had conversations with them, we know where they’re at. But as it pertains to the House of Representatives more broadly we think a majority of the body is ready for the debate and ready to support moving past the death penalty.”
Boyack said he believes the bill will get a “fair shake. We don’t think that leadership is going to try to influence votes or whip votes on this. We don’t have that indication.” Still, he said “they’re certainly entitled to their personal opinions and I respect them.”
It’s been expected that the Utah House would be the real battleground for the 2022 death penalty bill.
Previous iterations have cleared the Senate. In 2016, SB189, sponsored by now former Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George., won Senate approval on a 15-13 vote. But the bill stalled in the House, even though then-House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, supported it. In 2018, a late-to-surface bill also failed to muster the votes needed to pass the House, and its sponsor, Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, pulled it from consideration.
But even if the HB147 clears the House this year, Boyack said he’s not expecting an “easy” or “easier” time in the Senate.
“It is a different Senate than there was before,” Boyack said. “We’ve had success on this issue in the Senate in the past, it’s true, and we’ve struggled in the House in the past, it’s true. But, you know, a third of these legislators have never voted on this issue before. So it’s a new Legislature.”
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, has said he’s been opposed to repealing Utah’s death penalty, but also has an “open mind.”
“I’m starting to see a little bit of both sides of this issue and I’m concerned for the families of the victims that have gone through that death row process along with the perpetrators. ... It’s an interesting process and I have an open mind,” Adams told reporters in a media availability in a Senate office Friday.
Repeal will likely come down to a close vote
Boyack said there are a decent number of legislators who are “torn” on the issue and are still trying to work through “mixed” feelings on how they stand.
“It will probably be a close vote,” Boyack acknowledged. “We’ve had a lot of conversations and even people who feel very strongly about this recognize that there are good faith arguments on both sides.”
Ultimately, however, Boyack said he and other backers believe “we have a majority of legislators ready to support this bill. The more that they have learned in past years about this issue, the more they have come to support its repeal.”
Boyack also noted more and more Utahns have begun to drop their support of the state’s death penalty, as shown by a recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll. The October poll showed a very slight majority of Utahns — 51% — oppose eliminating Utah’s death penalty as a sentencing option in future cases compared to 40% who support doing away with it.
Asked whether Wilson and Schultz’s opposition cause concern for his effort, HB147’s Senate sponsor Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said, “there are times when the speaker and majority leader of the House and I have disagreed in the past.”
“There are a lot more times that we agree,” he added, “and I’m looking forward to the next time we agree.”