The Future of Capital Punishment in Utah
Salt Lake City–In Utah’s 63rd Legislature an effort by Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, sponsored HB379, a bill that would prohibit Utah prosecutors from seeking the death penalty after May 8, 2018. Effectively, it would end the use of capital punishment in the state.
“What’s interesting is that this debate is being pushed by Republicans, by conservatives. Whereas before it was an issue you didn’t discuss. This has opened the debate in many conservative states,” stated Professor Matthew Burbank of the University of Utah Political Science Department.
Professor Burbank elaborated on the debate and the changing public support for capital punishment. “We have two particular reasons for the change. One, a number of high profile cases, with DNA particularly, have led to a number of exonerations. Those have struck people.”
Since 1973 there have been more 155 exonerations nationwide according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
One of the most recent exonerations, reported by the Chicago Tribune, was former Illinois death-row inmate Gabriel Solanche, who prosecutors dropped their charges after Circuit Court Judge James Obbish overturned his conviction, finding that disgraced Chicago detective Reynaldo Guevara had lied under oath when he testified.
According to Burbank though, what has really moved the discussion regarding death penalty to the forefront has been the changing the attitudes of conservatives. “There has been a change in conservatives as to judicial practices, like mandatory sentencing, like the death penalty and it’s cost to benefit.”
A recent study prepared for the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission found that seeking the death penalty in Oklahoma “incurs significantly more time, effort, and costs on average, as compared to when the death penalty is not sought in first-degree murder cases.”
The study which was prepared by Seattle University criminal justice professors Peter A. Collins and Matthew J. Hickman and law professor Robert C. Boruchowitz. The study reviewed 15 state studies of the death penalty found seeking the death penalty imposes an average of approximately $700,000 more in case-level costs than not seeking capital punishment.
According to the Salt Tribune, Utah’s own legislative analysts in 2012 estimated that a death sentencing and years of appeals cost $1.6 million more than a life-without-parole sentence. Another recent report estimated that Utah and its counties have spent almost $40 million to prosecute the 165 death-penalty-eligible cases that have been filed in the past two decades. Only two cases in that time have resulted in a death sentence.
The ability for states to actually execute prisoners has become difficult. Lethal injection has been the primary method in recent decades and is regarded as the most humane form of execution. In 2016 however, Pfizer joined over 20 American and European pharmaceutical manufacturers that had previously blocked the sale of their drugs for use in lethal injections, effectively closing the open market for FDA-approved manufacturers for lethal execution drugs.
Shifting public opinion also shows that support for the death penalty has waned greatly. According to the Pew Research Center, half of Americans (49 percent) now favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 42 percent oppose it. Public support for capital punishment peaked in the mid-1990s when eight-in-ten Americans (80 percent in 1994) favored the death penalty and fewer than two-in-ten were opposed (16 percent). Opposition to the death penalty is now the highest it has been since 1972.
These practical obstacles to implementing a death sentence have shifted many of those on Right.
Nicholas Coleman, President of the Utah College Republicans, stated that younger conservatives his age seem to match the larger group and has seen the debate regarding the practicality of the death penalty in his organization.
“There are more than just a few. The thought is usually based on fiscal conservatism.” Coleman stated. He expanded saying the price to litigate a death sentence and the cost to house death-row inmates are often cited as reasons behind some conservatives’ desire to do away the death penalty.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, who served in the Utah Senate as a Democrat from 2009 to 2012, has watched with interest has noticed the shift among the Republicans and Conservatives he knows and works with. McAdams noted that he sees a general mistrust of government competency beyond conservatives as well that has played into this debate being opened up.
“It has been interesting to see the debate on both about how this might go.” McAdams said “As I speak to many of them, it’s more a reflection of a distrust of government. Government gets it wrong.”
Support for the death penalty though is still majority opinion among Republicans as of 2016 with 72 percent of still in support of the sentence according to Pew Research. Support is the lowest among Democrats at 34 percent while Independent support is 44 percent.
If trends continue in the same decline that has been seen the past couple decades, capital punishment may soon be a sentence of the past. And for conservatives states like Utah, it’ll be the upcoming voters and dynamic lawmakers to see that change.
LinkedIn: Spencer Buchanan