Death penalty repeal fails in narrow vote after emotional, tearful debate

Feb 14, 2022, 1:34 PM | Updated: Jun 13, 2022, 4:26 pm
The Utah State Capitol (Photo: Derek Petersen, KSL TV)...
The Utah State Capitol (Photo: Derek Petersen, KSL TV)
(Photo: Derek Petersen, KSL TV)

SALT LAKE CITY – Matt Hunsaker gets nervous each February when the Utah Legislature kicks into high gear and he’s worried the state will do away with the death penalty, possibly sparing his mother’s killer from execution.

But Sharon Wright-Weeks wants Utah to take the significant step. The move would spare other families the decades of appeals that “eclipsed everything” as she awaited the execution of Ron Lafferty, she said Monday, dabbing away her tears with a tissue at the state Capitol.

Jessica Black, however, fears suspects won’t tell authorities where they hid someone’s body if a potential death sentence isn’t hanging overhead. She sobbed as she talked about the leverage leading police in Logan to the remains of her five-year-old daughter, Lizzy Shelley, in 2019.

The three were among several crime victims who gave emotional and at times tearful testimony during a legislative hearing that stretched on for nearly three hours late Monday. Many urged the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Standing Committee to vote down a repeal proposal, HB147.

The panel voted to keep capital punishment in place by a slim 5-6 vote.

“This bill would remove the possibility of a death sentence for all future crimes, no matter how horrible,” said House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, shortly before voting against the measure. “The future Ted Bundy could not receive the death penalty if this bill passed.”

Supporters of the measure say death sentences are outdated, expensive and rarely ever carried out as appeals crawl through the courts. Critics say they should remain on the books for those convicted of the most heinous murders.

Some lawmakers on the panel cited concern that Utah hasn’t done enough to streamline the legal process that currently allows for multiple trials and lengthy appeals. They said the state should explore ways to do so before scrapping the death penalty altogether.

“I feel like we’ve got to try that first if in fact it’s broken,” said committee vice chairman Jefferson Burton, R-Salem.

But criminal defense attorney Mark Moffat warned against that approach. He said attempts to speed the process could lead to critical errors in the cases. And those who file appeals tend to do so based on constitutional rights, he said, not state laws.

Utah may wrongly convict and send someone to death row in the future if it hasn’t already, argued Jensie Anderson, with the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center.

She said 18 people convicted of felonies in Utah have been exonerated, including one Utahn charged with a capital offense. And revelations about witnesses being paid and threatened in the case against Douglas Stewart Carter – who’s on death row for the 1985 killing of Eva Oleson – raise questions about that conviction, she said. Prosecutors dispute the claim.

Andrew Peterson, death-penalty counsel in the Attorney General’s Office, described the details of brutal murders that resulted in death sentences over the years. He said the cases like that of Taberon Honie – sentenced to die for killing and sexually assaulting his ex-girlfriend’s mother – demonstrate the need for a fitting punishment.

And while the pending measure would prohibit Utah prosecutors from seeking death sentences in the future, Peterson said it would invite challenges from those already on death row.

“This bill will not deliver on its promise,” he said.

Matt Hunsaker was 10 years old when his mother Maurine left for her job at a Kearns gas station one day in 1986 and never returned home. Her killer, Ralph Menzies, is one of seven men now on Utah’s death row.

Hunsaker said he wants it to stay that way.

“For me, it’s just seeing justice served for my mom,” he told KSL ahead of the debate at the Capitol. “It’s just seeing that the system finally followed through all the way from the beginning to the end.”

After Connecticut and New Mexico abolished capital punishment for future cases, those states’ supreme courts ultimately spared death row inmates from execution, he noted.

It’s not clear how Utah’s justices would decide a similar lawsuit. But attorney Marina Lowe, with the ACLU of Utah and the libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute, said courts in other states have allowed similar laws to stand.

The Utah bill seeks to add a new possible term of at least 45 years and up to life in the Utah State Prison, in addition to existing options of 25-to-life and life without parole.

Rep. Lowry Snow, its sponsor, told lawmakers the death penalty is a theory, not a reality in Utah, because so few people are ever executed.

“I think it’s time for Utah to get rid of this albatross,” said Snow, R-Santa Clara.

‘A counterfeit promise’: Brenda Lafferty’s sister urges Utah to finally ditch the death penalty

Retired 1st District Judge Kevin Allen, who presided over the murder case for Lizzy Shelley’s uncle, Alex Whipple, dismissed claims that law enforcers would be shortchanged in negotiations. He believes crews would have found the girl’s remains within days if Whipple hadn’t offered to provide her location in exchange for prosecutors taking the death penalty off the table.

For one lawmaker on the committee, Monday’s lengthy debate wasn’t enough.

Rep. Kelly Miles, R-South Ogden, who voted in favor of the bill, said he believes it warrants debate and a vote in the full House and Senate.

“An issue this big that has such profound implications, I would ask that we take it to the floor, get the insight from our other colleagues,” he said.

Top prosecutors in Salt Lake and Grand counties, along with Utah’s branch of the NAACP, spoke in favor of the bill. The Utah Sheriff’s Association, Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings and the Utah Crime Victims Legal Clinic testified against it.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

KSL Investigates

Matt Gephardt & Sloan Schrage

Get Gephardt: How cybercriminals use social engineering to get us to hand over our sensitive info

You can have the strongest, most secure password in the history of cybersecurity, but the bad guys know there is one weakness they can use to hack into your system - you!
6 months ago
Delric Ellington and Kael Ellington talk about a stray bullet that entered their Salt Lake City hom...
Annie Knox and Daniella Rivera, KSL TV

Amid increase in youth shooting deaths, Utah pediatricians push for tougher gun laws

The number of Utah children and teens killed by gunfire reached a record high in 2020, in part because of a spike in homicides. Two Utah pediatricians are calling on the state to pass what they see as solutions to the troubling trend.
6 months ago
Albee Bostrom and Sissy McDade turned their love of thrift store shopping into a business: Thrift H...
Matt Gephardt

Gephardt Busts Inflation: Second-hand shopping, selling surge as Utahns try to beat rising prices

Data shared with the KSL investigators shows Utahns are trying to bring in more money and reduce spending as they try to bust inflation.
6 months ago
Bry Hansen visits his son's grave in South Jordan. (Tanner Siegworth/KSL TV)...
Annie Knox and Daniella Rivera, KSL TV

The number of Utah kids and teens dying by gunfire hit a record high in 2020

The state hit a devastating milestone in 2020, recording the highest-ever number of shooting deaths among Utahns 18 and younger.
6 months ago
Matt Gephardt & Sloan Schrage

Get Gephardt: What can you do if you pay someone to do work but they disappear with your money?

Imagine paying a deposit only to have them take your money and ghost you.
6 months ago
Photo illustration (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)...
Matt Gephardt

Get Gephardt: Your credit card can up your interest rate without telling you

If your credit card company raises your interest rate even just a little bit, it could have a significant impact on how long it takes you to get out of debt. A relatively new law means your credit card company can do just that and they do not even have to give you the heads up.
6 months ago

Sponsored Articles

Hand turning a thermostat knob to increase savings by decreasing energy consumption. Composite imag...
Lighting Design

5 Lighting Tips to Save Energy and Money in Your Home

Advances in lighting technology make it easier to use smart features to cut costs. Read for tips to save energy by using different lighting strategies in your home.
Portrait of smiling practitioner with multi-ethnic senior people...
Summit Vista

How retirement communities help with healthy aging

There are many benefits that retirement communities contribute to healthy aging. Learn more about how it can enhance your life, or the life of your loved ones.
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to choose what MBA program is right for you: Ask these questions before you apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Cloud storage technology with 3d rendering drawer with files in cloud...
PC Laptops

How backing up your computer can help you relieve stress

Don't wait for something bad to happen before backing up your computer. Learn how to protect your data before disaster strikes.
young woman with stickers on laptop computer...
Les Olson

7 ways print marketing materials can boost your business

Custom print marketing materials are a great way to leave an impression on clients or customers. Read for a few ideas to spread the word about your product or company.
young woman throwing clothes to organize a walk in closet...
Lighting Design

How to organize your walk-in closet | 7 easy tips to streamline your storage today

Read our tips to learn how to organize your walk-in closet for more storage space. These seven easy tips can help you get the most out of your space.
Death penalty repeal fails in narrow vote after emotional, tearful debate