This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Nineteen states have abolished the death penalty. Utah isn't one of them. In fact, Utah is the only state in the modern era to use the firing squad. That's not something to shout from mountaintops.
Granted, Utah doesn't see many capital offense cases. Since 1976 Utah has executed seven people. Utah currently has nine inmates on death row. But on these most important of cases, attorneys struggle to get paid. This tension between budgets and priorities puts attorneys in the unfortunate position of choosing between zealous representation, which ethics require, and adequate representation, or even barely-competent representation.
Death penalty cases require a specialized skillset. In 2008 the state Supreme Court noted it would start overturning death penalty sentences and sending cases back for re-sentencing if qualified attorneys were not available to take the cases.
Yet counties are still limiting the pool of qualified attorneys by capping case costs at a rate that makes representation, especially by solo practitioners, economically impractical. Unnecessarily strict limits on the number of defendant visits and witness, investigative and expert resources is completely inapposite to zealous representation.
The state's Division of Finance has capped payment for a capital offense case at $60,000. If you reduce an attorney's rate to $100 an hour, $60,000 equates to 15 weeks at 40 hours a week. Few attorneys work 40 hours a week, and no capital offense cases are ever resolved in 15 weeks.
The solution to underfunded capital cases, of course, is to abolish the death penalty. As English jurist William Blackstone famously stated, "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." There is something wrong with a nation that mistakenly puts its citizens, mostly poor, and disproportionately black, to death.
More than 159 people have been freed from death row after evidence of their innocence exonerated them.
Even aside from mistaken and racists convictions, the death penalty as a deterrent to murder is ineffective. The 2014 FBI Uniform Crime Report showed that the South, which accounts for more than 80 percent of executions, has the highest murder rate. If the death penalty is supposed to deter murder, it isn't working.
Fiscal analysts have estimated it costs an additional $1.6 million to litigate a capital offense case. But repudiating the death penalty is more than an opportunity to save money. It's an opportunity to save souls.