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  1. #1
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    Utah Capital Punishment News

    Utah AG wants quicker executions

    Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff says he wants to amend the state constitution to limit appeals to speed up execution of convicted criminals.

    Outlining his proposal Monday, Shurtleff said that appeals are so drawn out that the state effectively has no death penalty, The Deseret News reported. The amendment would put appeals for post-conviction relief in the hands of the Legislature instead of the courts, except when someone has evidence of actual innocence.

    There must be an end, Shurtleff said. When it comes to the most violent crimes, there is no justice in Utah.

    Barbara Noriega, whose mother and sister were killed in 1990 by a man whose death sentence is still under appeal, supported Shurtleff's proposal. She spoke to the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

    The guilty are manipulating the system and the courts are enabling them, she said.

    But critics said that the plan may be unconstitutional and is too drastic, the Deseret News said. Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Zimmerman called it doing brain surgery with a meat ax instead of a scalpel.


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    A visibly upset Attorney General Mark Shurtleff left the House Thursday morning after representatives shot down a constitutional amendment that would streamline the post-conviction death penalty appeals process.

    "This is a travesty. It's a huge blow to the victims," said Shurtleff, who was surprised at the outcome after having commitments from enough lawmakers to get the two-thirds majority needed to pass the bill. "I was sitting next to the parents of [murdered] Maureen Hunsaker, and they wonder if they will live long enough to see justice. They get lip service, but nothing done for them."

    Many lawmakers said they had deep sympathy for victims' families, but didn't want to circumvent the legislative process. The Constitutional Revision Commission had not ruled on the constitutionality of the bill, but Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, who sits on the commission, said it had many unintended consequences.

    "Words matter, and we need to look at this very carefully," said Allen, pointing out that a house committee had not vetted the bill.

    She and several others also argued that the amendment will not be on the ballot for voter approval until November 2010, and that there was no need to rush.

    Shurtleff called that a "misrepresentation," pointing to the fact that the Constitutional Revision Commission already met four times on the bill and didn't take any action.

    "They said we have time to do this next year, and you had better believe it will be back next year in force, but the Constitutional Revision Commission has no intent to support this bill or have meaningful discussion on this bill," Shurtleff said.


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    More information about that (itīs interesting)...

    Utah bucking U.S. death penalty trend


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    Lawyers propose new measure to limit death-row appeals

    Opponents of a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit criminal appeals were adamant that changing the Utah Constitution was the wrong way to deal with death penalty cases that drag on for years.

    On Thursday, they switched tactics and proposed their own constitutional amendment.

    While presenting the measure to the Utah Constitutional Revision Commission, the authors -- former Utah Supreme Court Justice Michael Zimmerman and Salt Lake City attorney Troy Booher -- still insisted it was better to just leave the Constitution alone. But, they said, if the commission does ultimately recommend a constitutional amendment, they want it to be theirs.

    A proposed amendment by the Attorney General's Office would allow the Legislature, rather than the courts, to limit the claims in all criminal cases that could be considered in post-conviction relief petitions, which are brought after a conviction and sentence have been upheld.

    The counterproposal by Zimmerman and Booher would put a time limit on raising challenges to a capital conviction or sentence, rather than a limit on the issues that can be raised.

    In addition, their amendment would apply only to death penalty cases and let judges continue to rule on what claims are allowed. Booher said there is no incentive for delay in non-death penalty cases because the inmates already are serving their prison sentences.

    The commission, which is an advisory group to the Legislature, has previously taken comments from supporters of the A.G.'s proposed constitutional amendment. Commission Chairman Jon Memmott, a 2nd District Court judge, said Thursday the group will try to have a decision this fall on a recommendation.

    A 2/3 vote by state lawmakers is required to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. The earliest voters could consider the measure is 2010.

    The A.G.'s proposal was introduced at the last legislative session as SJR14. The bill narrowly passed the Senate but was defeated in March by the House.

    10 Utah inmates currently are under a death sentence. The dates of their crimes range from 1984 to 2004.

    (Source: The Salt Lake Tribune)

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    Death penalty appeals plan faces easier hurdle

    SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A legislative advisory panel has been told that a plan to limit death penalty appeals in Utah could take effect without a state constitutional amendment.

    Rep. Kay McIff told the Utah Constitutional Revision Commission on Thursday that the appeal process can be streamlined with a simple change to Utah Supreme Court rules and a state statute.

    The commission, which has been wrestling with the issue for two years, unanimously approved the proposal.

    Chairman Jon Memmott, a 2nd District judge, says the panel would draft a letter to the Legislature recommending the plan.

    Supporters of the proposal say Utah effectively has no death penalty because convicted killers have been allowed repeated appeals.

    Ten inmates currently reside on Utah's death row.


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    House committee passes bill that would limit death-row appeals

    A proposed change in state law designed to reduce appeals in criminal cases, especially those filed by death-row inmates, got a favorable recommendation Wednesday by the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.

    The 10-0 vote moves the measure to the full House.

    House Bill 19 tweaks the Post-Conviction Remedies Act, which limits the claims that defendants can raise after they have been convicted and lost an initial appeal.

    The bill would allow a state court judge to dismiss a petition for post-conviction relief on a procedural basis, such as missing a filing deadline, without assessing the merits of the appeal. Both the act and the bill's proposed change allow an exemption for defendants claiming their lawyers provided ineffective assistance.

    The legislation was written to work in conjunction with a change to Utah Supreme Court rules that went into effect on Jan. 4. That rule change also provides a procedural basis for a state judge to dismiss a post-conviction appeal without a merits review.

    The measure could end a long battle over a proposal by Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff to amend the state constitution to allow the Legislature, rather than the courts, to limit the claims in all criminal cases.

    Shurtleff wanted the constitutional change to streamline death-row appeals, which can delay executions for years. Opponents had argued that amending the Utah Constitution could eliminate the ability of judges to consider innocence claims in any criminal case and would upset the balance of powers among the 3 branches of government.

    The chief sponsor of HB19 is Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, a lawyer who studied the issue last year with a task force of lawmakers, lawyers, legal experts and court representatives.

    (Source: The Salt Lake Tribune)

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    June 6, 2010

    Weber County to pull nearly $250,000 from county budget in '10 to cover death penalty cases

    OGDEN -- Eye for an eye, but there's a cost to getting biblical on defendants in death penalty cases.

    Weber County will likely have to pull close to a quarter- million dollars out of the county budget this year to pay for the defense of those the county has charged with capital homicide.

    "If they were hiring a private attorney and paying general market rates for a capital homicide defense, it would be close to a million dollars for each case," said veteran defense attorney Bernie Allen.

    "They're getting a hell of a deal."

    The pressure was relieved somewhat with a sentencing last month in one of the three death penalty cases the county attorney's office was juggling simultaneously.

    Riqo Perea was sentenced to life in prison without parole after his jury conviction in March for a 2007 gang double homicide. The death penalty was dropped on the eve of trial, but appeals await nonetheless.

    The county is in negotiations with defense counsel for Jacob Ethridge, facing the death penalty for a double homicide in July 2008, and Jeremy Valdes, in the same straits for a November double killing.

    Neither legal team has been paid for its work to date this year on the cases. The county changed its system of funding public defenders Jan. 1, with no apparent appropriation for capital defense.

    Payment schedules and witness fees are now being negotiated in both cases, said Chris Allred, one of the deputy Weber County attorneys involved in those discussions, who concedes the cost could approach a quarter-million dollars total this year.

    "Assuming they all go the distance, it might be that much," he said.

    A lump sum capital account was included in public defender appropriations for decades under the old Weber County Public Defenders Association. Additional appropriations were made when Perea and Ethridge were charged in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Before then it wasn't much of a concern, as capital homicide charges hadn't been filed since 2001.

    But the 40-year-old association was disbanded last year, with the county negotiating individual contracts with attorneys effective Jan. 1 this year. So officials face a one-time-only cost of paying for three death penalty defense teams at the same time.

    Prosecutors simply stack their capital cases on their regular caseload, paid via their annual salary. The county hasn't paid anything yet this year for capital defense as the negotiations continue.

    "They still owe us for Perea since the end of the year, as well as Ethridge," said Allen, who, with law partner Randy Richards, handled Perea's defense and now waits on their fees in Ethridge's case.

    The rule of thumb for a minimum paid to public defenders in a capital case is a flat rate of $100,000 per case, Allen said, which can equate to $28 an hour given the time commitment needed for an appropriate defense.

    "A public defender can get beat up pretty bad during the appeal process for what he's not able to accomplish at trial for lack of funds," he said.

    That further delays the county's goal of execution when appeal issues are created over the county's lack of funding, Allen said. "And they're the ones who filed the charges in the first place."

    Public defender Gary Barr, assigned the Valdes case along with fellow public defender Ryan Bushell, said they've yet to be paid for their work since Valdes was charged in December.

    Barr is still waiting on a contract to be negotiated, just as Allen and Richards wait on their contract for Ethridge. Fees in Perea's case are not at issue apparently, just payment.

    Barr expects a six-figure contract for Valdes' case, yet to be set for trial and still early in the motion phase. But the $100,000 or so he expects is well below the market rate considering the work involved in a capital case, Barr said.

    "You'd think the county would want to make sure a capital homicide trial is done right the first time. Otherwise, that's the first issue on appeal -- ineffective counsel," he said.

    "If they want to do capital cases, file charges to have someone executed, then they'll have to pay for it."

    Ethridge finally has a November trial date and Perea's trial came 2 1/2 years after the murders, so it's likely Valdes' case will run into 2011. Allred expects to have to pay Valdes' attorneys next year.

    It's been decades since the county attorney's office has had three capital cases at the same time, Allred said.

    "We certainly hope it doesn't come up too often."

    The status of defense counsels' pay negotiations came up briefly Friday during a status conference for Ethridge before 2nd District Judge W. Brent West.

    West has set an Oct. 1 deadline for filing further motions in the case, with some flexibility for last-minute developments.

    The defense indicated a motion will be coming to exclude potential jurors who might still adhere to a "blood atonement" concept once taught by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    Under the defense theory, the belief that punishment for those who shed the blood of another can only come with shedding of their own blood makes a juror unfairly disposed to the death penalty.

    The motion was filed in the Perea case, but became moot when the death penalty was taken off the table.

    West set a July 16 date for final discussions on a jury questionnaire.

    Negotiations continue over the question of Ethridge visiting his private dentist for problems stemming from prior reconstructive surgery. The newly hired jail dentist apparently "only fills cavities and pulls teeth," Allen told the judge.


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    79 percent of Utahns support death penalty, poll finds

    SALT LAKE CITY — In the course of seven years, Utahns' support for the death penalty has not waned.

    Results from a Deseret News-KSL poll conducted this week show that 79 percent of Utahns either strongly or somewhat favor the death penalty. The poll, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, found that only 16 percent oppose executions.

    The poll results mirror a 2003 survey that asked Utahns the same question. In that Deseret News poll, 78 percent favored the death penalty and 17 percent opposed it. Because of the built-in margin of error, the results were basically identical.

    The number of Utahns who favor the death penalty is 15 percentage points higher than the rest of the nation, according to a 2008 Gallup poll that showed 64 percent of Americans favor capital punishment.

    University of Utah sociologist Heather Melton said those who support the death penalty often do so for moral reasons and out of a belief that it will somehow right a wrong.

    "One of the reasons people seem to support the death penalty is because they see it as justice for what happened or revenge, kind of an 'eye for an eye, this is what they deserve,' " she said. "People who support it feel they are getting justice."

    Not only do Utahns overwhelmingly believe capital punishment is just, they go so far to say that the sentence is not used enough. Sixty-three percent of the 312 Utahns polled said they do not believe the death penalty is imposed as often as it should be in the United States. Twenty-one percent believe it is imposed "about the right amount" and 8 percent feel that it is imposed too often.

    Utahns would like to see more executions compared to the country as a whole. According to a nationwide Gallup poll conducted in October, 49 percent said they do not believe the death penalty is imposed often enough, with 24 percent saying it is imposed "about right" and 20 percent believing it is imposed too often.

    Melton said there are a number of reasons that may explain why Utahns favor capital punishment so much. Those who are conservative, white and male tend to be pro-death penalty, she said.

    The Dan Jones poll found men favoring the death penalty only slightly outnumber women — 84 percent to 77 percent. And while very few Utahns who identified their political ideology as conservative said they oppose the death penalty, the majority of those who consider themselves moderates or even somewhat liberal still favor capital punishment, the survey indicated.

    All of those polled who identified a religious affiliation were far more likely to favor the death penalty than oppose it. Stephen Bahr, a professor of sociology at BYU, said this can partially be explained in religious doctrine.

    "Religious teachings of various kinds teach justice and consequences for what you do," Bahr said. "There are scriptures on both sides, but culturally there are notions that in justice and fairness, if you killed somebody, you should have to pay for that."

    This belief was echoed by Andy Dudzik, 78, of Green River, Wyo., who was definitive in his support of capital punishment.

    "I'm for it," he said Thursday while shopping in Salt Lake City. "I figure if they kill somebody they should have their life taken away, too. Taxpayers shouldn't be paying for murderers, that's for sure."

    But others randomly interviewed by the Deseret News were less absolute. Stacy Hamm, 32, an architect from Salt Lake City, said she was "torn" on the issue but was definitely more for the death penalty than against it.

    "It seems like a horrible, mean thing to do when they could just get life in prison," she said. "I don't think all people who get the death penalty should have it, but those who commit crimes against children or who are vicious and mean-spirited and commit serial crimes that are unfathomable should get it on the basis of their crimes and their mentality."

    Melton said people's opinions will change depending on the details of a crime. It is not uncommon for someone who supports the death penalty to do so conditionally.

    "Many people who in theory support the death penalty have qualms because when you look at the research on white victims vs. non-white victims, people are much more likely to get the death penalty when there's a white victim than if there's non-white victims for the same crimes," Melton said. "People who support (the death penalty) are concerned about biases."

    But for some, an opposition to the death penalty is rooted less in moral reasons than a belief that it just isn't effective. David Swigart, 46, a window and door installer from Salt Lake City said he feels like the death penalty fails as both a deterrent and as a just punishment. The way he sees it, it's a drain on resources.

    "I think (the death penalty) is set up wrong," Swigart said. "I just don't believe in it. It costs a lot of money, with all the appeals and time it takes and it's an easy way out. Why not make someone think about what they did for the rest of their lives?"


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    Guv wants streamlined death penalty appeals

    After the state executed convicted murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner, Gov. Gary Herbert said he wants to see the appeals process for condemned prisoners streamlined, so executions can be carried out more expeditiously.

    “Twenty-five years is just too long. There ought to be a process that’s more timely,” Herbert said Thursday during his monthly news conference on KUED. “It’s just too long and it becomes too much of a circus atmosphere. … And it doesn’t serve the families very well.”

    Gardner was executed by firing squad June 18 for the 1985 slaying of attorney Michael Burdell during an attempted courthouse escape. He also wounded bailiff Nick Kirk. Gardner was to stand trial for shooting Melvyn Otterstrom during a bar robbery in 1984.

    Nine men remain on Utah’s death row; the longest-serving is Ronald Lafferty, who was first condemned in 1985 but was re-sentenced in 1996. Douglas Carter was sentenced to death in 1986 and re-sentenced in 1992. Ralph Menzies was sentenced in 1988.

    “I think justice delayed is justice denied,” Herbert said.

    Herbert said he has discussed ways to streamline the death penalty with Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

    Shurtleff had pushed for an amendment to the Utah Constitution that would let the Legislature limit post-conviction appeals. But the amendment effort was dropped after the Utah Supreme Court agreed to a rule change directing courts to not consider the merits of appeals that were not pursued with “reasonable diligence” during an inmate’s time on death row.

    The rule change took effect in January, and the Utah Supreme Court referred to the rule in rejecting one of Gardner’s final appeals, finding that Gardner could have raised the issues that were grounds for appeal any time in the previous 10 years.

    Will the rule shorten the amount of time condemned inmates spend on death row?

    “We hope so,” said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Brunker, who handles capital appeals.

    “One of the problems, of course, is those are state law changes and can’t affect directly the federal court,” he said. It will take some time to figure out if the rule change, along with changes to state law in 2008 and 2010, ultimately expedite the appeals. In the meantime, he said, the Attorney General’s Office isn’t working on any new revisions.

    Troy Booher, a Salt Lake City lawyer specializing in post-trial appeals, says the best way to streamline the appeals process is to make sure the accused gets a fair, thorough trial the first time, but that would take money.

    “I think if we’re going to have a death penalty, 25 years is too long between sentence and execution,” Booher said. “Our view is the way you streamline the process is to fund the best attorneys to defend people on death row and if it’s done right the first time, there’s a lot less there to challenge.”

    Utah is one of two states that does not provide any state funding for its indigent defense fund, not even for capital cases, said Darcy Goddard, legal director for the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, leaving counties with the expense, which strains their resources and undermines the accused’s defense.

    “To the extent that the governor is concerned about expediting the process, which is something I’m not going to opine on one way or another, one way to do it is to make sure the representation they get from the beginning is quality representation and the resources to mount a good, competent defense are provided,” she said.


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    Bill aims to limit motions, speed executions in UT

    Death-row inmates would have fewer chances to obtain stays of execution under a proposed law under consideration in the Utah Legislature.

    The Deseret News said the bill sponsored by Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, would limit the number of court motions capital murderers such as Ronnie Lee Gardner could file after being convicted.

    Gardner was on death row for nearly 25 years and filed numerous post-conviction petitions before being executed by a firing squad in June.

    McIff told fellow members of the Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee on Wednesday that the Gardner case is an example of why the legislation is needed.

    Utah currently has 9 men on death row.

    (Source: The Associated Press)

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