Legislature to quicken death penalty process

Story and photo by ROBERT CALLISTER

A bill aimed at quickening the death penalty appeals process in an effort to save money is one step closer to passing Utah’s Legislature.

House Bill 202’s sponsor, Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, says the bill is designed to reduce the delays and excessive nature of post-conviction proceedings in death penalty cases. HB202 focuses mainly on two things: court appointed counsel and automatic stays after execution dates have been set.  The draft of the enrolled bill has now been prepared having passed both the House and Senate. It is the final chapter of an effort spanning the previous three legislative sessions.

Legislators work on the House floor.

The Utah legislature is cutting approximately 15 percent from its budget this year. Following through with a death penalty conviction is an expensive process, but McIff believes the legal costs can be drastically reduced by carefully modified legislation. Millions of Utah tax payers’ dollars are spent yearly to fund these costly legal fees.

Central to HB 202 says all known claims of mistrial or error during the original trial must be raised at the first post-conviction review and not saved for a later date or petition. Rep. McIff believes this will prevent wasted time and money.

“This knowledge cannot be kept in the back-pocket of the defense for later use in a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th petition,” he said.

The bill was inspired by a Supreme Court ruling that denied Ronnie Lee Gardner’s last request for a stay of execution on June 17, 2010.  Gardner was convicted of fatally shooting attorney Michael Burdell in 1985 and murdering a bartender in 1984. The then 49-year-old Gardner was shot by a firing squad 26 years later.

McIff said this case highlighted the possibility that the appeals process can be drawn out so exhaustively that, in the end, the convicted might not receive the just sentence given to him by the jury. It took four petitions for Gardner to finally receive the death penalty. This is precisely what HB 202 is designed to prevent, said McIff.

“HB 202 is designed to recognize that 26 years is too long,” said McIff, a retired judge. “There were four post-conviction appeals filed in the Gardner case, each one determined not to have merit, but each one adding additional years and hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars in additional expense.”

He added that it is impossible to put a price tag of someone’s life, but there has to be regulation to such an exhaustive and often wasteful process.

In the justice system there are three entities being acted upon. The trial is designed to bring justice to both the victim and accused. The state is to act as a mediator between the two. Generally, citizens of the state agree to render justice in the best, most efficient method possible. McIff believes that a system that allows petition after petition only invites manipulation and corruption.

Some opposed to the bill, such as Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, say it will lead to the execution of more innocent people. King has said he does not agree with the death penalty and the bill needs to be considered carefully.

“I don’t think that we should consider this bill without recognizing exactly what we’re doing,” he said. “What we’re doing is accelerating the process of killing people who have killed people, and we’re doing it in the name of the state.”

To date, 245 people nationwide have been exonerated through DNA testing and reforming in the criminal justice system. Supporters of HB 202 believe it will still offer convicts the option to petition in order to minimize harm and maximize justice.

It provides for one post-conviction petition to make certain no error has been overlooked. New counsel is appointed at public expense to rule out any question about incompetency of trial. The defendant is afforded the benefit of a fresh set of legal eyes to review the entire proceeding to make sure nothing favorable to the defendant was overlooked.

Rep. McIff said he negotiated the bill over several months. The Judicial Conference and the Constitutional Revision Commission unanimously endorsed it.