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Four county attorneys call for the death penalty to be repealed in Utah

(Stock photo)

SALT LAKE CITY – Could the death penalty be done away with in Utah? Some county prosecutors signed an open letter to the governor and lawmakers calling on the state to repeal and replace it. 

However, some legal analysts say it would severely limit a prosecutor’s bargaining power. 

The three most severe penalties currently within state law include 25 years to life, life without the possibility of parole or, the most severe, the death penalty. Salt Lake County DA Sim Gill, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt and Summit County Attorney Olson held a press conference, saying they support upcoming legislation that would replace the death penalty with a prison sentence of 45 years to life, leaving life without parole as a possible sentence.

The prosecutors offered many reasons why they want capital punishment to be replaced, ranging from high cost, a lengthy appeals process and that it’s used inequitably on minorities. However, Olson said the main reason is that innocent people have been put to death.

“For every nine convicted, condemned people on death row, one has been exonerated. That is not good enough,” she said.

Sim Gill said 50 people have been executed in Utah since 1854. He highlighted the 1915 execution of Joseph Hillstrom, also known as Joe Hill, convicted in a grocery store robbery that led to a double murder.

Gill said, “In 2011, William Adler published a biography of Hill which included an alibi never introduced at trial and evidence that tended to show Joe Hill did not murder anyone.”

The Innocence Project has reportedly found 18 people who sat on death rows across the country that were later exonerated by DNA evidence.

“It is irreversible within an imperfect criminal justice system,” Gill said.

Prosecutors cited studies from Susquehannah University showing taxpayers pay a total of $1.2 million dollars more for an inmate on death row compared to an inmate sentenced to life. Utah County Attorney David Leavitt said counties have to pay for both the prosecution and the defense during each death row case and those costs add up.

Leavitt said, “Because it was a death penalty case, my one death penalty case occupied four full-time prosecutors for a full two years, and we’re not even to a trial date.”

Leavitt made headlines after announcing he would no longer pursue the death penalty, which infuriated family members of murder victims Riley Powell and “Breezy” Otteson. They believe accused killer Jerrod Baum is content living in prison, and giving him life without parole is essentially a victory for Baum.

Gill, Leavitt and Olson all say capital punishment should not be used as a bargaining chip to convince defendants to plead guilty to lesser crimes. However, some legal analysts say the threat of death is an effective tool to get suspects to confess.

Former prosecutor Kent Morgan said, “It happens quite a bit where the death penalty is a potential sentence in a murder case.”

Under state law, once a defendant pleads guilty, they’re no longer allowed to appeal that case. Morgan said a plea deal prevents the victim’s families from going through a painful trial, and in his experience, most families want the case resolved as quickly as possible.

“They wanted it over with so they could move on and deal with their grief,” he said.

Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan also signed the open letter prosecutors are sending to state lawmakers, although she was not able to attend the press conference.