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

Posted at 12:00 AM, Sep 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-08 19:42:52-04

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill to abolish the death penalty in Utah has been unveiled on Capitol Hill.

The forthcoming legislation, sponsored by Rep. Lowry Snow and Sen. Dan McCay, would not be a flat-out repeal of capital punishment. Instead, it would "repeal and replace" the death penalty.

Instead of execution, Utah would offer 45-years-to-life in prison, in addition to life without parole and 25-years-to-life in prison that are currently on the books. Rep. Snow, R-Santa Clara, said that came about in discussions with prosecutors across the state.

"They wanted a tool to be able to negotiate with perpetrators that you’re either going to be spending the rest of your life, or there’s the possibility, it may be remote that you’ll still see the light of day at some point," he told FOX 13.

The bill has been in the works for months and has involved discussions with lawmakers and prosecutors.

"The problem with the death penalty today is we have not been able to get it accomplished," Rep. Snow said, noting that legal appeals can last decades and some relatives of murder victims have died still waiting for a death sentence to be carried out.

The last man executed in Utah was Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010. Ron Lafferty died in prison of natural causes in the midst of decades of legal fights. A federal appeals court recently reinstated the death penalty sentence for Von Lester Taylor.

In an apparent nod to past concerns of some murder victims' families, the bill also would not commute the sentences of the seven men on death row in Utah. They will remain there, facing the possibility of a firing squad execution. (Utah has firing squad as the default method of execution when lethal injection is unavailable and the Department of Corrections has said it does not have the necessary drugs to carry out a lethal injection execution.)

Utah death row inmates

"It’s not throwing in the towel, it’s really an acknowledgment of the right fight," said Sen. McCay, R-Riverton. "I would argue that potentially the fight we’ve been involved in for generations may not have been the right fight."

The bill will be introduced in the 2022 legislative session. Connor Boyack, the president of the libertarian-leaning policy group Libertas Institute, which is backing the bill, said they have been meeting with lawmakers and believes the 45-to-life sentence has managed to persuade some capital punishment supporters.

"It’s a repeal and a replace. It’s not just saying no to something, it’s saying yes to something else. This new punishment, this 45-to-life that’s going to allow prosecutors to still pressure defendants to reveal where the body is, to confessing to the crime and admitting guilty, negotiating a plea deal," Boyack said.

Previous efforts to repeal capital punishment have been introduced in the Utah State Legislature and failed. Sen. McCay said he hopes things have changed.

"We’re hoping that time is really our friend here," he said. "Where people have the opportunity and lawmakers have the opportunity to wrestle with the process."

Read the proposed bill here: