SB189: Senate to consider bill that would end death penalty

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SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would add Utah to the list of 19 states that have ended the death penalty for convicted murderers in Utah is waiting for debate in the Utah Senate.

SB189 passed s committee vote 5-2 earlier this week and now waits for the entire Senate’s consideration and vote.

Senators stand during the national anthem on the first day of the Utah Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. (Laura Seitz/The Deseret News via AP) SALT LAKE TRIBUNE OUT; MAGAZINES OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT; TV OUT
Senators stand during the national anthem on the first day of the Utah Legislature at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016.

SB189 would eliminate the punishment for first-degree felony homicide. If passed, the bill would take effect May 10, 2016.  However, the bill would not change any capital cases currently being prosecuted or keep Utah from carrying out the punishment of any nine people currently on death row.

Bill sponsor Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said there are countless reasons for Utah to end its use of capital punishment. He said the high costs, its failure to prevent crime, and the possibility of wrongly convicting and punishing a person are all purposes behind his sponsoring of the bill.

Urquhart also believes capital punishment inflicts too much suffering on the families of inmates and victims waiting for the executions to occur.

Three of the nine death-row inmates in Utah have been waiting for nearly 30 years for their execution and trial to be finalized.

In his presentation to the committee, Urquhart said, “To have those families have expectations that someone is going to be put to death and it takes such a long time… I think that’s abusive.”

If the bill passes, Utah would become one of 19 other states that have determined the death penalty to be an ineffective, irreversible punishment.

While Urquhart said, “Government shouldn’t be in the business of killing,” it’s only been one year since he and a majority of Utah legislation voted to reauthorize the use of firing squads to execute the death row inmates. At the time, state legislature determined firing squads to be much cheaper, quicker and more accessible than the previous method of lethal injections.

Only two members of the seven-person judiciary committee voted against advancing the bill to the senate for debate. Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, and Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said they believe death is a fitting punishment for some crimes.

Republican Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said he voted to move the bill forward Tuesday because it’s an important discussion for lawmakers to have. But he said he’s not sure if he’ll support the bill when it comes before the full Senate for a vote.

“There are cases — the most extreme, the most gruesome, the most horrific cases — that I believe there should be a more significant punishment,” he said.

David Shapiro, an attorney who has worked with capital case defendants, spoke in favor of the bill, agreeing with Urquhart’s reasoning.

“I know that in Arizona, much like in Utah, the average person spends a generation on death row,” Shapiro said.

However, Shapiro added a personal perspective when he shared that his parents were murdered in homicide-arson in their Arizona home. The criminal was caught and charged with capital murder, but four years later, the case is not even close to a completed trial.

Shapiro said waiting for such a long trial and for the punishment, “is a grueling, impossible position for a victim to be in.”

If the bill were to become a law, the crime of aggravated murder would be punishable by life without the possibility of parole or 25 years to life in prison. Shapiro said he believes those sentences would be appropriately harsh for his parents’ alleged murderer.

“That to me honors my parents’ memory,” Shapiro said.

 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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