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A bill that seeks to shorten the decades-long delays caused by death penalty appeals was unanimously passed from the House Judiciary Standing Committee on Thursday.
HB202 sponsored by former 6th District Judge Kay McIff, R-Richfield would generally bar a court from issuing a temporary stay of execution following a defendant's first post-conviction petition. The bill also would limit public funding of defense counsel after that first post-conviction petition has been rejected.
McIff said his bill is designed to discourage frivolous or untimely appeals while still allowing for claims based on new evidence, ineffective assistance of counsel or other issues with potential merit.
"We're not going to put anyone to death if a meritorious claim is out there that hasn't been heard," McIff assured committee members.
Post-conviction petitions, which are filed following a defendant's direct appeal to the Utah Supreme Court, are a catch-all device in the process "to review anything and everything that may have been overlooked," McIff said.
Following that review, McIff said, "the process is complete." But he said some death row inmates have filed for post-conviction relief up to four and five times sometimes without good reason and sometimes by holding onto a meritorious issue "like a piece of jerky" you put in your pocket to eat later, McIff said.
McIff said his bill was prompted by condemned killer Ronnie Lee Gardner, who filed his fourth post-conviction petition just a month prior to his execution by firing squad last June.
By limiting stays of execution following the first post-conviction petition, HB202 would encourage defendants to advance their best theories as part of their first petition, he said.
Said LaVar Christensen, R-Draper: "Without this [bill], they can circle back and try all different theories, and one day it's been 20-plus years."
McIff said he and Assistant Utah Attorney General Thomas Brunker have met with criminal defense attorneys who wanted to discuss their concerns about the bill.