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Prosecutors call on Utah Governor, Legislature to repeal & replace death penalty

SALT LAKE CITY — Four Utah prosecutors have stated they want to repeal the death penalty.

On Tuesday, they sent an open letter to Gov. Spencer Cox and the Utah State Legislature, calling on them to do so.

The action comes one week after the Utah County Attorney said he would no longer prosecute death penalty cases and two Republican lawmakers said they would sponsor a bill to repeal the death penalty and replace it with a new law.

In the open letter, the district and county attorneys from Grand, Salt Lake, Summit and Utah counties wrote that the death penalty is a defect in the justice system.

They wrote it’s their duty to call out the defect to the legislature and urge them to repeal it.

“The death penalty is a big lie. It’s the lie that we tell ourselves as humans. It’s the lie we tell ourselves as prosecutors. It’s a lie we tell ourselves as politicians,” Utah County Attorney David Leavitt said at a press conference Tuesday.

The prosecutors want to replace the death penalty with a new sentence for aggravated murder of 45 years to life.

Two Republican lawmakers plan to support that legislation next session.

Leavitt, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, and Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson were joined by the county attorney from Grand County in the open letter.

“The death penalty today in Utah is a permanent and irreversible sentence within an imperfect system,” said Gill.

They argued capital punishment fails to deter crime, re-traumatizes victims, disproportionately applies to minorities, is expensive and it makes plea negotiations coercive.

“Instead of the death penalty providing closure to victims, the constitutional appeals that follow mean a death sentence will take decades to impose, if it ever happens,” said Olson.

Gill said his office has been working on these issues for five or six years.

Leavitt upset victims’ families last week when he said he would no longer seek the death penalty against a man accused of murdering two people and dumping their bodies in an abandoned mineshaft.

He said his county commissioners support his decision.

“The death penalty simply is the big lie that we tell ourselves to help us believe that we are making a difference, but really, what’s occurring is we are making ourselves more at risk in so many ways,” said Leavitt.

The bipartisan group believes this is not a liberal or conservative issue, rather, it’s an American issue.

“The death penalty offers a false hope,” said Gill. “It’s a fraud. It says that we will give you a measure of justice, but we can never give a measure of justice, ever, because justice would be that this incident never happened.”

The state of Utah has not carried out an execution since 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad, 25 years after the murder he committed.

Leavitt said that he is interested in working on justice reform that begins with repealing and replacing the death penalty.

“Let’s try to create preventative programs now that will prevent the murders from occurring in the first place. That’s true community protection, and that’s what we’re seeking with this,” said Leavitt.

Under this proposal, the possible sentences for aggravated murder would be life without parole, 45 years to life, or 25 years to life.

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