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I spent more than 30 years as a prosecutor in Utah, and worked on several capital murder cases, including those against Joseph Paul Franklin, Arthur Gary Bishop and Ron Lafferty. Based on what I have seen over the course of my career, I now strongly support the repeal of the death penalty.
While I think that those who commit aggravated murders should never be allowed the opportunity to victimize society again, I find more negatives than positives in our capital punishment system, and I don't believe it makes us safer as a society.
Deterrence is often cited as a justification for the death penalty, but it's hard to find evidence of it. Very few convicted murderers in Utah receive the death penalty and, when they do, the necessary heightened scrutiny the courts give capital cases means that they drag on for decades before executions occur if they occur at all. Despite all the aggravated murders committed in Utah over the past four decades, only a handful of murderers sit on death row a majority of them for crimes committed back in the 1980s. It's hard to gauge any deterrent effect under those circumstances.
Our death penalty system is also unfair to victims' families. Because of what I've observed through the years, I have become an advocate of full disclosure to victims' families, and feel that it's a moral if not a legal obligation of prosecutors who handle capital cases.
What I mean by full disclosure is this: After spending time building rapport with a victim's family, I would level with them about the capital case and appellate process, and tell them that I wanted them to know what I would want someone to tell me, if I were in their shoes.
And the truth is this: If a capital case goes to trial and the jury returns a verdict of death, that pronouncement is probably the last satisfaction the victim's family will get for years, if not decades. From that point on, the delays and uncertainties of the death penalty appeals process are likely to take a terrible toll, keeping the wound open and denying the victim's family any closure.
The "lucky" ones, in my opinion, are those whose cases result in life without parole, rather than the death penalty. When that happens, the murderers go to prison and, for the most part, no one hears about them again and the victims' families are able to move on with their lives.
And there is one more compelling concern: No system of justice is perfect, and so it's possible that an innocent person could be convicted of capital murder, and wrongly executed. This is not currently a factor in Utah, because there is no credible claim of factual innocence for any of the individuals on death row. But there have been cases in other states of innocent people being convicted of capital murder, and being sentenced to death. I have met and become friends with some of those people, so it's not just theoretical to me.
When a mistake is made and the wrong person is sent to prison, there is at least the opportunity for exoneration and release. But when the wrong person is executed, there is no remedy or recourse, and the injustice is irrevocable.
For all of these reasons, I urge the Legislature to pass Senate Bill 189, and end the death penalty in Utah.
Creighton Horton worked in the Salt Lake District Attorney's Office and the Utah Attorney General's Office, prosecuting more than a dozen capital cases. He retired in 2009.