COURTS & LEGAL

Judge dismisses lawsuit by 5 death row inmates, upholds Utah’s death penalty statute

Dec 26, 2023, 2:30 PM | Updated: 2:30 pm

A Utah judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by five Utah death row inmates claiming the state's deat...

A Utah judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by five Utah death row inmates claiming the state's death penalty statute equates to cruel and unusual punishment, opening the door for a new execution date to be set for one inmate. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

(Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — A lawsuit filed by five Utah death row inmates claiming the state’s capital punishment statutes equate to cruel and unusual punishment has been dismissed.

On Friday, 3rd District Judge Coral Sanchez agreed with a motion filed by the Utah Attorney General’s Office that the lawsuit filed by Ralph Menzies, Douglas Carter, Troy Kell, Michael Archuleta and Taberon Honie should be dismissed.

In her ruling, Sanchez first notes that because the state’s execution protocols were last amended in 2010, the statute of limitations for the inmates to file a lawsuit had expired.

“Because plaintiffs waited until 2023 to assert their claims under the publicly available 2010 protocol, their claims are dismissed for being untimely,” the ruling states.

Furthermore, Sanchez said the inmates did not successfully argue that Utah’s protocols for administering the death penalty result in cruel and unusual punishment.

“Plaintiffs have offered no legal precedent or historical facts to support their interpretation of the cruel and unusual punishments clause: that a method of execution must result in instantaneous death,” the ruling states.

She also cites previous rulings that say an inmate is not guaranteed a death that is completely free of pain, and that some risk of pain is inherent in any method of execution no matter how humanely it is carried out.

Utah’s current default method of administering the death penalty is by lethal injection. But if the right cocktail of drugs isn’t available, the state allows for a person to be put to death by firing squad.

Friday’s ruling states that the death row plaintiffs have not shown that the firing squad creates unnecessary pain, nor that execution by lethal injection “will subject an inmate to a sufficiently imminent danger of needless suffering as required by the United States Supreme Court,” according to court documents.

The inmates have 21 days to file a motion to amend their complaint.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office also notes that Menzies has exhausted all of his death sentence appeals in court. A death warrant could be issued at any time setting a new execution date. Menzies, who was convicted of kidnapping and killing gas station attendant Maurine Hunsaker — a mother of three — on Feb. 23, 1986, is eligible to be put to death by firing squad because his case was grandfathered into Utah’s old laws.

  • Archuleta was convicted of aggravated murder for torturing, raping and murdering Gordon Ray Church, a 28-year-old Southern Utah University theater student, on Nov. 22, 1988.
  • Carter was convicted of aggravated murder for stabbing and shooting a Provo grandmother, 57-year-old Eva Olesen (the aunt of a former Provo police chief) on Feb. 27, 1985, during a robbery of her home.
  • Honie was convicted of killing and sexually assaulting his ex-girlfriend’s mother, 49-year-old Claudia Benn, at her home in Cedar City. His ex-girlfriend’s three children were present and witnessed the killing.
  • Kell is on death row for a brutal, racially-motivated killing of fellow inmate Lonnie Blackmon in 1994.

Two other men are on Utah’s death row: Von Lester Taylor and Douglas Lovell.

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Judge dismisses lawsuit by 5 death row inmates, upholds Utah’s death penalty statute