ST. GEORGE – A bill that would repeal the death penalty in Utah passed its first hurdle in the Legislature Wednesday as it passed out of a committee and now heads to the House floor. Should the bill manage to survive the session, Gov. Gary Herbert has said he’ll consider signing the repeal into law.
Sponsored by Huntsville Republican Rep. Gage Froerer, the House Bill designated HB 379 proposes amendments to Utah’s death penalty law that would prohibit prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty in aggravated murder cases. The bill would not affect the nine inmates in the state currently on death row.
During the committee hearing, Froerer said he was originally a supporter of the death penalty and was among those who opposed a similar bill sponsored by former Sen. Steve Urquhart. Urquhart’s bill died on the final day of the 2016 legislative general session. Since then, however, Froerer said he’s changed his mind.
In a world where the death penalty is efficient, cost effective and actually deters crime, people definitely should support it, Froerer said, adding, “I don’t think we can say that today.”
He pointed to examples where innocent people have been placed on death row as well, also asking, “Should government really have the power of life and death?”
The emotional toll that constant appeals of death row inmates can take on a family, basically having them revisit the tragedy of losing a loved one by having to attend a death row inmate’s appeals hearings, was also brought up.
Speaking for the bill was Christine Stenquist, of Kaysville, whose sister, Sunday, was murdered in April 2010. While giving emotional testimony before the committee, she said she believes the death penalty does more harm than good.
“As the sister of a murder victim, I am confident that the death penalty process causes more harm than good to those of us left behind – the co-victims,” Stenquist said.
Stenquist’s family ultimately asked prosecutors not to pursue the death penalty for her sister’s murderer, as it otherwise meant they would have to “spend decades reliving” the incident.
Speaking against the bill was Dave Noriega, whose aunt and grandmother were killed by current death row inmate Von Lester Taylor days before Christmas in 1990. His testimony was calm yet heated as he addressed Froerer while also mentioning House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who also supports the bill.
“Speaker Hughes, Rep. Gage Froerer, do you have any idea how deplorable it is to listen to you tell our family what kind of justice we deserve? This isn’t about revenge. This isn’t about deterrents. It’s about justice. And you will be depriving our family from it.”
Taylor is currently appealing his death sentence, Noriega said.
“The only acceptable punishment, legally and morally, is death,” he said.
When testimonies were concluded and the committee moved to vote on the bill, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, made a motion to hold the bill as he felt more discussion was needed. He also mentioned the House’s recent passing of House Bill 70, legislation that calls for a study of the costs related to the death penalty and life sentences. Despite asking for there to be time allowed for the study provided in the Legislature, his motion was rejected.
“I think we’re going too fast with this,” Ray said.
Ray opposes the bill overall, adding that keeping dangerous “monsters” alive in prison puts prison staff at risk because those serving life sentences without a possibility of parole have nothing to lose.
“We have nine people on death row. Texas has 268,” Ray said. “We have the highest bar in the nation to be put on death row in Utah. Not one of those nine is appealing based on innocence …. Those people aren’t there because they’re nice, or (because) they made a mistake. They are there because they are monsters.”
The bill ended up receiving a favorable recommendation from the committee, 7-4. It now heads to the House floor.
As the hearing was wrapping up, Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert told reporters that he believes society has the right to “eradicate” people who commit the most egregious and heinous crimes; adding that court cases of death row inmates drag on too long and it’s unfair to victims.
“I’m going to take a very hard look if that passes through the Legislature,” Herbert said, speaking at a news conference televised on KUED-TV. “It’s something I would consider signing.”
- Read the bill: Utah 2018 House Bill 379 – Death Penalty Amendments
- Contact legislators
- Bill sponsor: Gage Froerer
- Southern Utah Sens. Evan Vickers, Don Ipson, David Hinkins and Ralph Okerlund | Listing of all senators.
- Southern Utah Reps. Travis Seegmiller, Bradley Last, V. Lowry Snow, Walt Brooks, John Westwood, Merrill Nelson and Michael Noel | Listing of all members of the House of Representatives.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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