The Summit County attorney is calling for an end to the death penalty in Utah
She joins fellow prosecutors in calling for abolition, citing the mistakes the criminal justice system can make
Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson on Tuesday joined with three other county attorneys to call for the end of the death penalty in Utah.
Olson, along with the Salt Lake, Utah and Grand county attorneys, signed an open letter to Gov. Spencer Cox and the Utah Legislature calling on them to support a bill that would replace the death sentence with a term of 45 years to life in prison.
Aggravated murder, the only crime eligible for the death penalty in the state, also carries possible sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and 25 years to life imprisonment.
Olson said in an interview the irreversibility of the death penalty coupled with the fact that the criminal justice system can make mistakes were compelling reasons to call for the abolition.
She said the United States has executed more than 1,500 people in the last 48 years, and in the same time period, 185 people have been exonerated and released from death row.
“That means that for every nine people executed, one person on death row has been exonerated,” she said. “That’s too many mistakes.”
She also cited what she characterized as the policy’s inequitable application and how it is used to coerce plea deals.
Capital cases are rare in Summit County, though one of the seven people on Utah’s death row committed those crimes in Summit County. Olson said she has never tried a death penalty case.
About half of U.S. states do not allow the death penalty, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Utah has not executed an inmate since 2010, according to the Department of Corrections. According to the letter from the county attorneys, the state has executed 50 people since 1854.
The attorneys’ proposal would remove the death penalty as a punishment for aggravated murder, leaving possible penalties of life without the possibility of parole, 45 years to life imprisonment and 25 years to life imprisonment.
It is unclear what would happen to the seven men currently on death row if the measure were to pass.
“In some of the other states where the death penalty has been repealed, the Supreme Court has taken the position that that stops executions. Others have not,” Olson said. “That’s an open question right now.”
The letter enumerates six reasons why the death penalty should be abolished.
“The death penalty in Utah today is a permanent and irreversible sentence within an imperfect system. It fails to deter crime. It retraumatizes victims. It disproportionately applies to minorities. It is expensive. And it makes plea negotiations coercive,” the letter states.
In addition to Olson, who is a Democrat, the letter is signed by Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan, who holds a non-partisan position; Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, a Democrat; and Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, a Republican.
“Utah County is one of the most conservative jurisdictions in the whole country, and (the) County Commission is unanimously supporting the repeal and replace,” Olson said, reiterating what Leavitt said about the Utah County Commission’s position at a press conference Tuesday.
Olson noted that the coalition of signatories, in addition to being bipartisan, represents both rural and urban constituencies.
“One of the reasons to come forward and articulate our decades-long, thoughtful struggle with this issue is because this repeal and replace has a solid chance of passing,” she said.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Lowry Snow, a Republican from St. George, said he intends to introduce the legislation in the next general session of the Legislature in January. Snow said Sen. Dan McCay, a Republican from Riverton, was co-sponsoring the bill.
Utah legislators in 2016 and 2018 unsuccessfully attempted to end capital punishment in the state. Snow said he opposed the measure the last time it came before the Legislature, but he has since had a change of heart. He said he thinks the measure has more support from conservatives this time.
“Do we support a system that deprives people of their life when it’s not certain it’s a perfect system?” Snow said. “When we sentence someone to life without the possibility of parole, it already is a death sentence. The only way that person gets out of prison is in a coffin.”
The fallibility of the criminal justice system was one of the reasons Olson cited when her office launched what’s known as a conviction integrity unit earlier this year. The program provides a pathway for people who have been convicted of a crime to challenge the conviction if new evidence comes to light.
Summit County was the third county in Utah to launch a conviction integrity unit, after Salt Lake and Utah counties.
Olson indicated the two efforts have similar motivations in attempting to ensure that justice is done.
“Whether it’s newly discovered evidence, DNA technology, witness recantation, eyewitness identification mistakes, whatever it is — I mean, the same thing, the same policy is behind the conviction integrity units,” she said. “A recognition that sometimes, not often, but sometimes the system gets it wrong. And being able to remedy that, well, you can’t if the person’s been executed.”
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