‘A counterfeit promise’: Brenda Lafferty’s sister urges Utah to finally ditch the death penalty
Jan 26, 2022, 10:16 PM | Updated: Jun 8, 2022, 5:57 pm
SALT LAKE CITY— It was 2013 when Sharon Wright-Weeks first chased away the thought that scared her most.
A federal judge had ordered the latest inquiry into Ron Lafferty’s mental fitness, and Wright-Weeks began to wonder if he’d ever be put to death for the murders of her sister and niece almost three decades earlier.
When her 82-year-old mother peacefully drew her last breaths in 2016, Wright-Weeks says her fear became a reality.
“Within 90 seconds of her passing away, the thought popped into my head that she was not able to see full justice while she was here,” Wright-Weeks said in a recent interview, crying. “It eclipses everything else that you do in your life. It is always there.”
She is now one of the most vocal critics of the punishment she’d seen as the means of justice for most of her life. And a Republican lawmaker from southern Utah says her experience is part of his motivation to propose HB147, a ban on the death penalty in front of legislators now.
“She brought to me a perspective from a victim standpoint that I hadn’t really considered,” Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, said of his constituent. “Is it really worth the best use of our resources to pursue something that we can’t get, in order to satisfy people’s demand that there be that kind of retribution?”
Ron Lafferty was sentenced to die twice for the killings he and his brother Dan Lafferty claimed God had ordered. But he was still pursuing a last effort at a new sentence when he died of natural causes in 2019. Dan Lafferty, however, was sentenced to life without parole, Snow notes, and largely faded from collective memory.
Decades removed from the initial jury’s decision, Wright-Weeks wishes she’d known at the time what a death sentence would truly mean for her family.
The death penalty proved to be “a counterfeit promise,” she said. And while she has nothing to gain from seeing it repealed now, she hopes to prevent the families of other victims from embarking on similar, painful journeys.
“I wanted my leadership to know and understand that we were suffering,” she said. “And we were suffering in silence.”
A new push
At the Legislature, Snow is appealing to his colleagues’ libertarian bent, arguing the death penalty does not just retraumatize crime victims like Wright-Weeks. He says it’s also costly, ineffective and places immense power in government.
The change he’s proposing would not apply to the seven inmates currently on Utah’s death row. Supporters of the measure say inevitable rounds of appeals after a death sentence make killers even more notorious and reopen wounds for victims’ families. Critics contend the punishment is appropriate for the most violent offenders. They push back on claims that the change would help the state save money.
Similar proposals before the Utah Legislature failed in 2016 and 2018, when criticism from crime victims and the Utah Attorney General’s Office proved to be roadblocks. The office of the state’s top law enforcer hasn’t budged, saying death is a fitting punishment for the worst killers and the change could invite a flood of challenges from those already sentenced to die.
But Snow says this time is different. He’s seeking to add an option at sentencing, rather than simply take one away, by introducing a new term of 45 years and up to life in prison. Existing options of 25-to-life or life without the possibility of parole would remain on the books.
Snow has supported the death penalty in the past and describes his change in thinking as a spiritual journey.
“I think as I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve realized how precious life is,” he said. “I think we have to think twice before we take it away.”
Utah is one of 27 states that authorize capital punishment, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Neighboring Colorado did away with the death penalty in 2020, and Virginia followed suit in 2021.
This year’s debate comes less than a decade after Utah brought back execution by firing squad in 2015, approving the method for when drugs for lethal injection are unavailable.
Ronnie Lee Gardner, killed firing by squad in 2010, is the most recent to be executed in Utah. He spent almost 25 years on death row after shooting and killing an attorney while trying to escape from a courthouse in 1985.
An uncertain fate
Snow acknowledges the measure may not win enough support to pass. Top legislative leaders haven’t said whether they back the bill. And while Gov. Cox told reporters in September that he’s reevaluating his support for the death penalty, he hasn’t voiced an opinion on the pending bill.
Snow says the money now spent on the lengthy cases could be better used to support law enforcers and crime victims. He cited one analysis that found the price tag for 165 death penalty-eligible cases from 1997-2016 was $40 million, but resulted in just two death sentences.
Prosecutors throughout the state are divided.
The top law enforcers in Salt Lake, Utah, Grand and Summit counties are all urging lawmakers to scrap capital punishment. But not everyone agrees.
The Statewide Association of Prosecutors and Public Attorneys surveyed its board of 17 members representing regions throughout the state but could not reach its three-fourths majority requirement to take a formal position, said Ryan Robinson, the group’s president.
“We couldn’t meet that in either direction,” Robinson said.
Weber County Attorney Chris Allred, who is pursuing the death penalty in the case of an Ogden couple accused of killing their young daughter, wants Utah to keep the option.
“I believe the death penalty is still an appropriate expression of society’s moral outrage at particularly offensive conduct,” he told the KSL investigators. Allred said research suggests public support is higher when people learn the specifics of cases.
He doesn’t think the move would reduce costs, saying it may lead to more trials and more hearings wherein the defense puts on mitigating evidence. Utah juries are in the best position to make the decision based on the facts, Allred said.
The office of Utah’s top law enforcer agrees.
“Once this bill is passed, or if this bill is passed, every single person on death row will start new challenges in court to their death sentence saying that they should receive the benefit of repeal,” said Andrew Peterson, assistant Utah solicitor general in the Utah Attorney General’s Office.
If the heftiest sentence on the books becomes life in prison without parole, the state will need to take more cases to trial to secure that outcome, he said, driving up costs and eating up resources.
And while it’s true that cases can languish as federal judges review legal claims from those on death row, that’s not reason enough to change the law, said Peterson, who is the state’s lead counsel on death penalty appeals in Utah.
“For the worst of the worst offenders, giving them a sentence less than death can itself be an injustice,” he said.
Court cases drag on for decades even when death isn’t a possibility, he said. Peterson believes two men on death row, Taberone Honey and Ralph Menzies, are nearing the end of their court challenges and could potentially face execution in the next few years.
Defense lawyers, however, say the change is long overdue.
Criminal defense attorney Mark Moffat said he supports the bill. He’s not opposed to the new 45-to-life term, he said, if it helps Utah dump the death penalty.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that this is the year,” Moffat said. “I think the timing is right.”
Death as leverage?
Prosecutors rarely seek the death penalty in Utah, and the odds of such cases going to trial are tiny.
Prosecutors filed charges of aggravated murder – the only offense in Utah that carries a potential death sentence – against nearly 200 people in the last 15 years. None have gone to trial, according to KSL’s review of data provided by the Utah State Courts.
KSL Investigators identified two dozen cases wherein prosecutors filed notices of intent to seek the death penalty out of a total of 191 death-eligible cases. Since 2007, the state has required them to disclose shortly after arraignment whether they’ll seek a potential death sentence.
Half of two dozen cases ended in plea deals that took the possibility of capital punishment off the table, while prosecutors formally withdrew their intent in five cases and another three remain pending. In the remainder, charges were downgraded or dismissed for various reasons.
Utah County Attorney David Leavitt says the numbers speak for themselves.
“If the death penalty weren’t being used as leverage, you’d see death penalty cases going to trial,” he said.
But Leavitt, a Republican, is the only county attorney in Utah to say publicly he will no longer seek death in any case while it’s still an option. After initially saying he’d pursue the death penalty for Jerrod Baum – charged with killing a teen couple and dumping them in an abandoned mine in 2018 – he dropped the push last year.
Leavitt said he realized he can’t justify seeking a sentence that will likely never be carried out because of extensive rounds of appeals. And he said it’s not ethical to coerce people into pleading guilty.
“What you get is a weapon in the hands of prosecutors that allows prosecutors to simply say, ‘Listen, we won’t try to kill you if you don’t make us prove our case, and you’ll spend the rest of your life in prison,” Leavitt said.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, whose office helped write the Utah bill, called the potential sentence of 45 years to life in prison a “critical edition” that better reflects the pain that loved ones suffer.
Even though he opposes capital punishment, Gill, a Democrat, is not ruling out the possibility that he’ll seek it again while it’s still available in the Beehive State.
“I have very good reasons why this is a punishment that no longer fits where we are in our society,” he said. “But I am also mindful of my duty and responsibility that I have. And I haven’t abdicated that.”
The death penalty may be inherently coercive, he said, but Gill says he’s never sought it just to secure a guilty plea.
The high number of plea deals reflects the strength of the evidence, he said. When prosecutors file a charge of aggravated murder, they’re confident in their case.
Gill said the measure spares victims’ families from constant re-traumatization and ensures an innocent person will never be put to death in Utah, but makes certain the public is safe.
“Why wouldn’t we – as a civilized, concerned community – want to have that option?” he said.
Snow said he was already thinking about carrying the proposal when the influential, libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute encouraged him to do so.
Like the last two Republican lawmakers who sponsored similar measures, Snow is not seeking reelection. He said he will step away from public office to see his 17 grandchildren more often, potentially serve a Latter-day Saint mission with his wife, Sheryl Snow, and receive treatment for prostate cancer after being diagnosed in the fall.
But his limited time left at the Capitol didn’t factor into his decision to bring the repeal bill, he said, which he’d originally planned for last year but postponed because of the pandemic.
“It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve worked on up here,” Snow said. “But I’m committed.”
Sharon Wright-Weeks said she recognizes that it may take time for Utah to embrace the change, but she believes it will happen eventually.
“My family was not given the opportunity to be able to heal and move forward, because we were always talking about him,” she said of Ron Lafferty. “He was there, like a weight that we had to carry, because of the death penalty process that kept him relevant.”
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