Lawmakers want numbers on death penalty cost in Utah
Analysis • Preliminary data show capital cases cost state, local governments.
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An execution comes with a significant price tag, Utah legislators were told in a committee discussion of the costs of Utah's death penalty.

Utah's ongoing death row cases — typically about 10 in any given year — are estimated to cost the state an average $690,800 over and above the projected legal costs if they were prosecuted without the death penalty, state fiscal analyst Gary Syphus reported Wednesday to the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee. Capital cases also cost local governments an estimated $460,000 per year for prosecutors and public defenders.

"I'm not under any illusion the Legislature or the people of Utah are ready to repeal the death penalty," said Rep. Stephen G. Handy, R-Layton, who asked for the analysis. "I want to have the discussion. I don't see a lot of purpose for the death penalty in today's world. When I go through the details of these horrific cases, my resolve gets a little weaker. You want to say, 'There's only one solution for that person.' But I approach it from the perspective of a conservative."

The figures represent an informal estimate — likely a low one, Syphus said.

For public defenders, costs can soar in capital cases where the defendant's mental health is in question or in cases where the defendant is not local because travel is required for investigation, said Patrick Anderson, of the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association. Experts may cost a county $50,000 to $100,000. To handle capital cases, attorneys must meet special qualifications that require expensive legal coursework, and their caseloads must be shifted to allow them to provide an adequate defense.

"Capital cases were 0.0008 percent of my total caseload, but yet it was probably 10 percent of my budget," Anderson said. "That's just talking about the trial. That's not the appellate aspect of it."

Eight people now are on death row in Utah, said Thomas Brunker, assistant attorney general. Appeals in death penalty cases in the state, on average, take 20 years, Syphus said.

"Death is the most extreme and irreversible penalty," Anderson said. "I don't think we want to lose sight of that."

Committee members asked for more data comparing Utah's costs to those in other states.

Handy said he has no plans to propose legislation to remove the death penalty in Utah.

"I'm not rabid about this," he said. "My main thing is to start a dialogue. ... It's time that we can have an adult conversation."