Time may be running out for the death penalty in Utah.
In September, two Utah legislators co-sponsored a bill that would replace capital punishment with a sentence of 45 years to life in prison for the first-degree felony of aggravated murder. The draft submitted by State Rep. Lowry Snow (R – St. George) and State Sen. Daniel McCay (R – Riverton) for the 2022 legislative session will prohibit the state from seeking the death penalty for aggravated murder committed after May 4, 2022.
Following the announcement, four county attorneys sent an open letter to Gov. Spencer Cox and the Utah Legislature detailing the reasons the death penalty should be repealed in Utah, and Salt Lake Community College students have diverging opinions.
The letter submitted to Cox’s office by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson and Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan detailed several reasons why the death penalty is “an irreversible sentence within an imperfect criminal justice system.” Capital punishment is not an effective deterrent against violent crime, they wrote: According to the most recent FBI crime report, average crime rates for states with the death penalty were higher than the average crime rates for the 25 states which abolished or halted the death penalty.
“It’s hard to know every situation,” argued Emma Zaugg, an illustration major. Zaugg said the current application of the death penalty is clear enough in demonstrating “where it would be needed or deserved.”
The attorneys also pointed out that Utah is more likely to execute racial minorities than white people for the same offense. They demonstrated a historical and current racial disparity of executions of Black and Native Americans. According to the letter, the first two people the territory of Utah executed were Native Americans. Two of the seven people Utah has executed since 1977 were Black. Of the seven Utahns currently on death row, one is Hispanic, one is Black, and one is Native American.
“I don’t personally believe in the death penalty. I think it’s hypocritical for the government to commit murder,” said Hannah Normandeau, an art major. As a proponent of prisoners’ rights, she advocates for, “the right for someone to be able to serve out their sentence.”
Not everyone agreed with the argument for repeal. According to a 2009 study by the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, significantly more defendants plea bargain to a long or life sentence in states where the death penalty is available.
“The death penalty is too easy … it doesn’t solve anything,” said Chris McClain, an animation major. “Jail time is an actual punishment.”
“I don’t think prison is a nice place to spend the rest of your life,” said Daniela Acevedo, an animation major. But she believes capital punishment is necessary in cases where the crime is particularly gruesome or heinous. “Some people deserve to not be here anymore because of the horrible things they’ve done. Some people are just too dangerous.”