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Utah Co. Commission supports repealing death penalty

Posted at 10:36 PM, Oct 27, 2021

UTAH COUNTY, Utah — The Utah County Commission is asking the Utah State Legislature to repeal and replace the death penalty, saying it doesn't actually deliver justice.

In a discussion usually heard in the courtroom, the commission room Wednesday was filled with talk of taking the death penalty off the table.

Utah County Commissioner Amelia Powers Gardner said that as a county, it's difficult to prosecute. She brought up how Utah County has only had four death penalty cases in its history, and only two have gone to the death penalty-- with just one of those people being executed.

"The way that we handle egregious murder in our state is not working," Powers Gardner said. "The statistics show us that, and the cost is just too great to the taxpayers."

The resolution laundry lists issues the commission sees with the death penalty, including the lengthy appeals process-- resulting in murderers staying on death row for decades.

It points out that many on death row end up dying of natural causes and are never executed. Meanwhile, it says, it costs taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

The resolution also touches upon the possibility that someone is wrongfully sentenced to death and later exonerated.

At the very end, it asks the Utah Legislature to remove the option from state law, and replace it with "alternative measures."

The move comes after Utah County Attorney David Leavitt recently announced he will no longer seek the death penalty in future cases.

READ: Utah Co. attorney says he will no longer seek death penalty

Leavitt spoke at Wednesday's commission meeting, saying the death penalty is commonly used by prosecutors as more of a leverage point to pursuade people to plead guilty.

"What that really means is, is that the government of the State of Utah is staying, 'We won't kill you if you'll agree to not make us not prove our case and serve the rest of your life in prison,'" Leavitt asserted.

He added that seeking the death penalty takes an incredible amount of time and resources, taking away from the numerous other murder cases his office is trying to bring to justice.

While he couldn't name the case specifically due to a gag order, Leavitt mentioned how in the last couple of years there is one case where he elected to seek the death penalty.

It is common knowledge that he originally sought the death penalty for Jerrod Baum, the man accused of killing Brelynne "Breezy" Otteson and Riley Powell, in 2018. The bodies of the two Eureka teens were found dumped in a mine shaft.

Leavitt said the one case alone has required four fulltime lawyers, fulltime investigator, fulltime paraleglal, and four fulltime public defenders. He went on to say that his office has 17 other homicide or attempted homicide cases, each one requiring two lawyers. Each lawyer, he said, has more than 100 cases in their case loads.

"I detract from the peace of my other victims-- hundreds of them-- by seeking a sentence that I concluded will never be carried out, and is the ultimate bridge to nowhere, speaking in terms of criminal justice," Leavitt said. "So if it will never be carried out, and it detracts from victims, then why would we seek it? And my conclusion is, for the betterment of our community, and for the protection of our community, I would not."

READ: Families of murder victims react to Utah County death penalty announcement

Some spoke to the commission against the resolution.

Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith said he's troubled by looking at justice from a budget. He argued that the law does not compel any county attorney to apply the death penalty.

He wants county attorneys to be able to look at a case and all the factors, he said, and weigh out what's best for the case.

"Why would we close the door on something that is used in case management, in the strategy of county attorneys?" he questioned.

Utah County Commission Vice Chair Tom Sakievich ultimately didn't approve the resolution, saying he worries that it sends a mixed signal that the commission is completely opposed to all death penalties, thus taking away from the county attorney the option to prosecute or not prosecute the death penalty.

"I think the resolution is a step that's not necessary and may cause confusion in the public," he said.

But Powers Gardner and Commission Chair Bill Lee did approve the resolution, expressing hopes that the state legislature will take on that debate from here.

"We need the state legislature to act," Lee said. "We want them to come forward. We want that discussion to happen."