Our members have been asking us about the death penalty. Although Action Utah has not worked on this issue to date, we are aware that there has been a significant shift in public opinion recently on capital punishment, with advocates from both sides of the aisle coming together to work to overturn the death penalty and a majority of Utahns preferring alternative forms of punishment. So by popular request, here is in an update on what is happening in Utah.
The latest news on death penalty in Utah
Capital punishment was once again under debate during the 2018 State Legislative Session as a bill that would have abolished the death penalty. HB379, sponsored by Rep. Gage Froerer (R-Huntsville), would have prevented Utah prosecutors from seeking the death penalty after May 8. Currently, only those convicted of aggravated murder can face the sentence.
Historically, the death penalty has been rarely used. Between 1986 and 2011, only 3 out of 73 aggravated murder cases resulted in a death sentence, which according to Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, means that “less than one half of 1 percent of all the murder cases resulted in the death penalty.” The last execution carried out in Utah was in 2010. Nine men are currently on death row in Utah.
Why do opponents think the death penalty should be overturned?
First off, it’s expensive. For each Utah inmate, a capital punishment sentence costs $1.6 million MORE from trial to execution than a sentence for life imprisonment without parole — and that’s not including additional costs from cases where the death penalty is sought but not achieved. Audits in other states have found that the trials of death penalty cases can range into the millions of dollars, or up to three times as much as other cases.
It can also lead to wrongful executions. Convictions can be made based on how much money the defendants have, how skilled the lawyers are, and the circumstances around the crime. A 2014 study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 1 in 25 of those sentenced to death are innocent.
Its ability to deter crime is also blurry. Although some studies claim that the death penalty deters crime, other groups like the National Research Council of the National Academies found that these studies are fundamentally flawed. In fact, economists John Donohue and Justin Wolfers concluded that if one used the same data as these studies, they could conclude that the death penalty actually increases murders. That’s why Carnegie Mellon criminologist Daniel Nagin says, “Nothing is known about how potential murderers actually perceive their risk of punishment.”
What would HB379 have done?
Rep. Gage Froerer’s bill would have repealed the death penalty in Utah. After May 7th, 2018, prosecutors would not have been able to pursue the death penalty for aggravated murder cases. Instead, the defendants would face life in prison, including life without the possibility for parole.
The exact text may be read here.
Where do Utahns stand on the death penalty?
Polls show that a majority of Utahns prefer not to have the death penalty. A poll conducted in February by Public Policy Polling and the Utah Justice Coalition showed that only 29% prefer the death penalty, down from 52% last year. Nearly 64% of respondents said that they supported alternative punishment.