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Utah County attorney says he will no longer seek the death penalty in future court cases

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Posted at 2:54 PM, Sep 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-08 17:39:15-04

UTAH COUNTY — An attorney in Utah County on Wednesday announced that he will no longer seek the death penalty in cases going forward.

READ: Utah legislature to consider 'repeal and replace' of death penalty

In a statement and video, Attorney David Leavitt referenced two death penalty cases with different outcomes. One was a speedy execution and the other took years.

Leavitt cited the cost in time and taxpayer dollars as his reasons for not pursuing the death penalty in future cases.

Death Penalty Announcement from CreativeStream Inc. on Vimeo.

Read the statement in full below:

Hello, I’m Utah County Attorney David Leavitt. We all know that the violent and dangerous belong in prison — both for our protection and their punishment.

Today I will discuss the death penalty and whether it protects us or makes us safer as a community. I’ll discuss it through the lens of two separate Utah County death penalty cases.

Two death penalty cases, eight years apart. One resulted in a speedy execution. The other, no execution at all and only 35 years of pain, sorrow, and heartache for everyone involved.

In July 1976 Gary Gillmore murdered two young men: Max Jensen and Bernie Bushnell. Both Max and Bernie have faded from our collective memory, though they live in the memory of their loved ones. Gary Gillmore, on the other hand, became a national household name.

Gary Gillmore’s jury trial lasted two days. At the conclusion of the two-day jury trial, the jury convicted him of both murders and gave him the death penalty.

A firing squad executed Gary Gillmore three months after his trial. The entire ordeal–from murder to jury trial to execution took barely over six months. I was thirteen years old and remember the notoriety that Gary Gillmore received from his death sentence.

Eight years later, another heinous crime destroyed innocent lives and rocked Utah County’s psyche. Ron and Dan Lafferty brutally murdered Brenda and Erica Lafferty. I was twenty-one years old and I remember the tragedy of it.

The Lafferty jury trial lasted nine days. The jury convicted them both The jury gave Ron the death penalty. However, it allowed Dan Lafferty life without the possibility of parole.

Despite receiving the death penalty, Ron Lafferty was NEVER executed. The appeals process was still pending when he died of natural causes 35 years later. He was on death row long enough for me to finish college, law school, and twenty-eight years of law practice in Utah and Eastern Europe. During that time his case gained so much notoriety that he was known throughout the world.

Dan Lafferty, on the other hand, still resides at the Utah State Prison. He is not famous. In fact, the world does not remember him.

Shortly after I took office, it fell to me to decide whether to seek death in a homicide case that my office was prosecuting.

I spent months weighing the decision as the case made its way through the process.

I knew — at least academically — that deciding to seek the death penalty would require huge taxpayer resources — both for the prosecution and for the defense; not to mention the costs of a decades-long appeals process if the defendant was found guilty.

In my decision to seek the death penalty, I became the first Utah County Attorney since 1984 to do so.

That decision has required an enormous expenditure of resources both in time and taxpayer dollars.

All of what we’ve spent, and more, would be worth it if it would prevent another senseless murder from occurring. But it doesn’t and it won’t.

Pretending that the death penalty will somehow curb crime is simply a lie. The answer to preventing these types of horrible crimes is in education and prevention before they occur. No family wants to hear, ‘My child is dead and that man got a long sentence.’ What they want to hear is, ‘My child was never killed.’

What I have witnessed and experienced since deciding to seek the death penalty is that regardless of the crime, seeking the death penalty does NOT promote our safety.

Seeking the death penalty seemed the right decision at the time. Upon further reflection, I am convinced that its costs far outweigh its benefits to the community as a whole.

My responsibility is to all victims. The resources that I’ve committed to seeking the death penalty have limited this office’s ability to assist and care for victims of other crimes.

The reality in any death penalty case is that even if a jury were to deliver a verdict of death, my thirty years as a criminal justice lawyer convince me that the death penalty will never be carried out again in this state — nor should it.

It’s time to change course.

There’s a better route, and we’re going to seek it.

There is no shame in admitting the need to change once we become aware of it. The only shame is if we choose to shrink from the challenge to move forward.

Today, I announce that as the Utah County Attorney, I will no longer seek the death penalty.

We continue to aggressively prosecute not only homicide cases but all crimes of violence, whatever their type.

That is the better route. It is the more responsible route. It will make us safer as a community in every respect.

What we have learned since Gary Gillmore, is that innocent people have been executed and that the penalty of death has been carried out inconsistently and discriminatorily.

What we have also learned is that the death penalty does not promote community safety. It is not an effective deterrent. It simply demonstrates our societal preference for retribution over public safety.

My commitment to you when I took office was to focus our efforts on community protection rather than on methods of the past that have long since proven ineffective.

Focusing on ALL victims by no longer seeking the death penalty advances that commitment.

I express my profound gratitude to the residents of Utah County for allowing me the opportunity to serve as your elected prosecutor.

Thank you, may God bless you all.