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A House committee on Tuesday moved Utah one step closer to abolishing the death penalty, despite the pleas from the families of victims whose killers sit on the state's death row.
SB189 passed on a 6-5 vote and will move to the full House for consideration with just two days left in the 2016 legislative session.
"Ralph Menzies murdered my mom 30 years ago. He took her up the canyon, tied her to a tree, smashed her head with a rock and slit her throat from ear to ear. That's my life," said Matt Hunsaker, who was 10 when his mother, Maurine was killed in 1986. "There's not a day that goes by that we don't think of my mom."
Hunsaker said he now takes care of his 85-year-old grandmother and doesn't know if she'll live to see Menzies, who was sentenced to die for the crime, executed.
"She wants to see justice for her daughter," Hunsaker said.
SB189 would eliminate the death penalty as a punishment for first-degree felony murder, effective May 10, and leave life in prison without the possibility of parole, or 25 years to life as the remaining punishments. The bill would not affect the prosecution of any capital case already underway, nor stop Utah from carrying out the executions of the nine men currently on the state's death row.
Bill sponsor, Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, told the committee he sees three main reasons that Utah should no longer use the death penalty: The costs of appeals; the decades between conviction and execution, which causes suffering for the family of victims and the imperfection of governments, which have sometimes executed innocent persons.
"Theoretically, the death penalty, it probably makes some sense," said Urquhart, who previously favored capital punishment. "But in reality, in Utah, the death penalty makes absolutely no sense."
On average, it takes nearly 25 years for those on Utah's death row to be executed following conviction and a 2012 study found that costs the state roughly $1.6 million per inmate, which far exceeds the amount spent on inmates sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, he said.
National statistics suggest that roughy 4 percent of all death row inmates were wrongly convicted.
Urquhart said he understood that the families of victims are divided on their support of capital punishment.
Defense attorney Steven Shapiro, whose parents were murdered in Arizona four years ago spoke in favor of SB189, telling lawmakers his family does not want to suffer through the years of waiting for a resolution in the case. Nor does Shapiro, who has himself represented accused killers, want to know they will have decades to pursue appeals.
"I don't want them to have hope," he said.
Nathan Coates, who spoke on behalf of his wife, was unequivocal in his opposition.
"When an individual in a heinous way chooses to remove a life from others, their life should be on the table," he said. "Generations are affected by the loss of my wife's family being murdered.
In 1991, Linae Tiede Coats and her sister watched as their mother and maternal grandmother Kay Tiede, 49, and Beth Potts, 70 were fatally shot by Von Lester Taylor at the family's Summit County cabin. Taylor, who was on the run from a halfway house, also shot and wounded their father, Rolf Tiede, 51, before setting the cabin on fire and kidnapping the girls.
Taylor pleaded guilty to two counts of capital murder and a jury sentenced him to die in 1991. He is one of the nine on Utah's death row.
Nathan Coates asked lawmakers to consider sending SB189 to an interim committee for study.
"I would submit to you that this is an issue that may require a lot more time and deliberation," he said. "The victims need to be known, they need to be understood."
Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, proposed holding the bill, saying lawmakers should instead spend time working on ways to fix what all agree is a broken system.
"This bill takes us in the wrong direction," said Daw.
Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, a former judge presided over the trial of death-row inmate, Troy Kell, who stabbed a fellow prison inmate to death in 1996. He joined other lawmakers in expressing support for the death penalty, even though its application is sometimes uneven.
"The system is not working well," said McIff. "It's a subject whose time has come for conversation."
If the SB189 were to pass the House, it could face a potential veto from Gov. Gary Herbert, who has said he supports retaining the death penalty for the most heinous crimes.
Herbert's spokesman, Jon Cox, has said the governor has not decided yet whether he would veto the repeal if it arrives on his desk.
Recent polls have indicated broad public support for the death penalty in the state, with 69 percent of Utahns approving of the penalty in a Salt Lake Tribune/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll in early January. Only 19 percent disapproved and 12 percent were unsure.