Wednesday , March 14, 2018 - 5:15 AM
SALT LAKE CITY — News of the Legislature proposing bills to eliminate Utah’s death penalty or study its costs made waves around the state, but neither bill passed.
However, the Legislature did pass one bill regarding the death penalty, which — if signed by Gov. Gary Herbert — would expand the list of potential aggravated murder victims.
Senate Bill 30 passed a Senate vote 25-0 on Wednesday, March 7. The bill clarifies that if any type of peace officer or first responder is murdered, the killer could be subject to the death penalty if prosecutors so choose.
The list of capital punishment victims goes on to include “correctional officers, special function officers” as well as search and rescue personnel. If enacted into law, the capital murder victims clause would take effect July 1, 2019.
The bill, which was sponsored in the House by Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, would also establish the Criminal Code Evaluation Task Force, a 15-member group that would study Utah’s criminal code. The task force would begin their selection process May 8, 2018, if the bill is enacted into law.
While the Senate bill expanding death penalty-eligible cases passed, other death penalty legislation failed.
The last official report done by the state was conducted in 2012, when a legislative analyst found death penalty cases cost the state $1.6 million more than sentencing an offender to life without parole. Handy ordered the 2012 report and wanted the number to be updated with more accurate, in-depth study.
After unanimously passing a House vote, HB 187 was not given a final Senate vote before the Thursday, March 8 deadline.
Handy’s 2012 study was cited in a February report from the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice that suggested giving a capital offender life without parole would be cheaper than giving them the death penalty and the appeals that would follow.
The report came out around the same time House Bill 379 was introduced in the Legislature. HB 379, proposed by Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, would eliminate the death penalty in Utah for future cases.
The bill would not have overturned prior death sentences, and the nine men who are on Utah’s death row would have still faced execution.
Like Handy’s legislation, Froerer’s bill failed. HB 379 was not voted on in the House. Froerer effectively killed the bill with less than a week to go in the session, and said it wasn’t worth taking up the time to debate such an emotional subject so close to the session’s end.
For now, Utah will continue to be one of 31 states with the death penalty. The state remains the only place in the country where an inmate can be executed by firing squad.
Weber County is one of five counties in the state that foot the bill for death penalty cases themselves. In the rest of the state, each county pays a pre-determined amount into a state fund that pays for the prosecution in capital offense cases.
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