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Expanding Definition Of First Responder In Aggravated Murder Cases Could Draw Legal Battle

Julia Ritchey
Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley, presents her bill to the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on Jan. 29.

A Utah lawmaker wants to broaden the definition of "first responder" in death penalty cases — a move that could prompt a major court challenge.

The billby Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley, would add correctional officers, security guards, EMTs and ambulance drivers to a growing list of potential aggravated murder victims. That provision already exists for firefighters and law enforcement.


She said the bill isn’t about capital punishment but about treating all first responders equally.


“These first responders need to fall under this category, so they’re all protected,” she said. “There’s not one that should be treated differently from the other.”


She presented her bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, which sailed through with a 5-1 favorable recommendation.


But the bill came with a warning: that lawmakers could be inviting a court challenge that defeats the whole purpose of the legislation.


William Carlson, a deputy Salt Lake County district attorney, said appellate courts in some states had overturned the death penalty when the list of aggravating factors grew too long.  


"Utah has over 60 aggravating factors,” he said, "so if Utah appellate courts take a similar route to other state appellate courts, that is a risk.”


Only Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, heeded those concerns. He supports capital punishment and said adding more aggravating factors could dilute the statute.


“I am concerned about loading that boat too full and then sinking the whole boat,” said Weiler.


The Utah Chiefs of Police Association backed the bill, which now heads to the House for debate.  


Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
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