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Politics & Government

Utah County Commissioners vote to abolish capital punishment

Commissioner Amelia Powers Garner speaking into a microphone.
Ivana Martinez
/
KUER
Commissioner Amelia Powers Garner said she supports the resolution because she doesn’t think the government should decide who lives and who dies.

Utah County commissioners passed a resolution to remove and repeal the death penalty in the county. They passed the measure with a 2-1 vote Wednesday afternoon.

The move comes after two Republican state lawmakers announced a bill last month that would try to repeal capital punishment. It’s the third time in five years that Utah leaders have attempted to end the death penalty at the legislative level.

So far, 23 states have done away with captial punishment, according to Death Penalty Information Center.

The county resolution urges the state Legislature to take up this issue in the upcoming General Session. It also encourages the county attorney to not to pursue capital punishment.

Utah County Attorney David Leavitt joined three other county attorneys last month in asking the governor and state leaders to support a repeal of the death penalty.

Amelia Powers Gardner, Republican Utah County commissioner, put the resolution on the agenda. She said the county is seeking to be fiscally conservative and prioritize victims rights.

She said death sentence cases are often drawn out and costly. Powers Gardner pointed out that people on death row almost never see execution — the last two people in the county ended up dying of natural causes while on death row.

Powers Gardner said her opinion on capital punishment has changed over the years and it focuses on two primary elements.

I really have a hard time with the government choosing who lives and who dies,” Powers Gardner said. “Especially if you look at the history of the death penalty. There have been multiple instances where someone has been sentenced to death and then that sentence has been overturned when more evidence came forward.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since the 1970s when the U.S. reinstituted the death penalty, 185 people have been exonerated nationwide.

Power Gardener said she also supports repealing capital punishment because the cases are so expensive. It’s a point cited by multiple Republican lawmakers who support the repeal.

The county resolution states the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice found that in 20 years, two cases eligible for the death penalty cost the state and local governments almost $40 million.

“I'm a fiscal conservative. I like to keep taxes as low as possible,” Power Gardener said. “When it comes to the death penalty, not only are we responsible for law enforcement, but we're also responsible for paying for the defense and the prosecution. And it's a really costly process.”

Utah County Commission Vice Chairman, Thomas V. Sakievich voted against the resolution. He had concerns with the message it would send.

“I don't want it to send a signal and potentially either encouraging aggravated murders or horrendous crimes, nor potentially interfering with [the] state legislative process,” Sakievich said.

He supports County Attorney Leavitt’s determination not to pursue capital punishment and said the resolution has served as a wake up call to have an active discussion on the matter.

Some members of the public, as well as Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith, took issue with the county's financial arguments.

Leavitt said he’s heard that concern but he believes cost needs to be a consideration when prosecuting criminals.

“I have weighed this option, both in seeking the death penalty originally and then electing to no longer seek the death penalty. I did so with the victims in mind because you can’t put a price on a victim’s peace.”

He said it’s about looking at the issue from a resource standpoint.

“I agree wholeheartedly that this is not and should not simply be a dollar discussion. But the realities of what we do requires that we engage in resource management.”

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