SHOWS + PODCASTS

In Utah, the death penalty can be a life sentence for victims’ families

May 30, 2021, 2:04 PM | Updated: Dec 30, 2022, 11:21 am
death penalty Matt Hunsaker Talking Cold...
Matt Hunsaker with Talking Cold hosts Amy Donaldson and Sheryl Worsley

SALT LAKE CITY – In too many Utah courtrooms to count, for most of his adult life, Matt Hunsaker has stood alongside his grandmother, holding a framed picture of his mother in an effort, during death penalty proceedings, to remind judges, attorneys and the media that Maurine Hunsaker was more than a murder victim.

“I miss her deeply every day,” Hunsaker said. in Episode 9 of Talking Cold, the podcast that explores the issues raised in the Cold Podcast. “She was taken so much earlier than she should. And it angers me because I don’t have those things that I got to I never got to do. I never got to go to Disneyland with her; she never got to go to Disneyland. She didn’t get to enjoy this pandemic we all just went through.”

Life taking and life-changing

Hunsaker was 10 when his mother was killed while working the night shift at a gas station just about a mile from where he now lives in Taylorsville. Losing his mother dramatically changed the course of his life.

“For a long time, it was just me and my mom, a single mom,” he said. “We lived in a few different places. …That was my, that was my world. You know, it’s after she died. It was just a blur.”

He eventually moved in with his grandmother, who attended every hearing for the man convicted of killing Maurine Hunsaker in 1986 – Ralph Menzies. Menzies was sentenced to death for the murder, but he remains in prison with several appeals pending decades later.

Hunsaker said Menzies’ death sentence became a “life sentence” for him and his grandmother. 

“Your mind frame is is getting justice for your loved ones,” he said. “But in all actual reality, it’s a verdict that you’re going to get here. And then… it’s a lifelong sentence for you and your family because you’re going to go to court, and you’re going to find out that that it’s not about your your loved one anymore. You can go sit in a five-hour hearing and you’re never going to hear your loved one’s name.”

He said if life without the possibility of parole was an option when Menzies was sentenced, he’d have chosen that. Instead, he now believes Menzies will die of old age in prison.

Death penalty used as a tool

Still, Hunsaker has made peace with a process that often ignores the victims of crimes.

“I’m done,” he said. “Losing my grandma (a month ago), that was it. That was the end of it for me. I fought so diligently on every level of (court and) going into the Capitol and fighting to keep the death penalty on the table – years and years.”

He said if Utah is going to have a death penalty option on the books, it shouldn’t be just a tool to persuade or pressure defendants into taking plea deals to life without parole.

“If you’re gonna have it on the books, use it,” he said. “Don’t have it on the books to threaten people with it and bully them – use it. Because the people like me that, that it comes into our (lives), I’ve got a lifelong sentence. It’s that’s me. I gotta carry this forever. Until it’s over, because I don’t have a choice now.”

Hunsaker said he will continue to represent his mom at hearings, but he will not invest the time and emotional energy in the legal process that he has for the last three decades.

“I will always honor my mom,” he said. “Until the day I am unable to walk, I will go t here and clean her headstone off, take her flowers, she was a great woman. I know she loved me. I know she loved me a lot. … I’m still going to make sure that everybody knows that she was an amazing woman, and she was robbed from us and from this world.”

Should the death penalty be abolished?

In the second half of Episode 9, local attorney Mark Moffat talks about representing those accused of capital homicide and why he’s spent the last few years advocating to end the death penalty. Moffat said he realizes his personal opinions about the death penalty put him in the minority in Utah, but there are also very practical reasons to abandon the death penalty, including the fact that life in prison without parole is a viable option and much cheaper in the long run.

“I believe that imposing a sentence of death on anybody is barbaric,” Moffat said. “I don’t believe that it is just punishment, I don’t believe in the concept, that if you take a life, you, you, you you forfeit your right to live I just think that that’s that’s something that I fundamentally disagree with. …In my own opinion, when we as a society sanction the taking of life, we diminish the significance and importance of life. And I just I’ve got a problem with that.”

Related:

Elizabeth Smart offers advice for survivors and those who love them

Advocates: Criminal justice system can be traumatic for sexual assault survivors

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In Utah, the death penalty can be a life sentence for victims’ families