A bill addressing long delays in closing death-row litigation passed a Senate committee Friday after its second consecutive hearing.
SB277, sponsored by Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, proposes to increase funding for an inmate's post-conviction legal proceedings. Defense attorneys and prosecutors say limits on funding contribute to extensive delays between convictions and the enactment of penalties, particularly in capital cases where the death penalty has been assessed.
Defense attorney Lynn Donaldson, who has represented death-row inmate Doug Lovell, testified that even with the funding increases proposed in Bell's bill, the amounts will still dissuade lawyers from taking post-conviction cases.
"The principle problem ... with this bill is that the funding, I think, is still inadequate," Donaldson said.
Another Utah defense attorney, Troy Booher, said the new funding plan would help the process and thanked both Bell and representatives from the Utah Attorney General's Office for changes that were made after the first hearing.
Ralph Menzies is a death-row inmate who was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1986 kidnap and murder of Maureen Hunsaker, a mother of three whose body was found by a hiker in Big Cottonwood Canyon. Her son, Matt Hunsaker, testified at Friday's hearing.
"Where's the constitutional right for my mom?" Hunsaker asked the committee. "The killer took her into the mountains, tied her to a tree and slit her throat."
A Utah 3rd District Court judge recently ordered a defense lawyer to represent Menzies in an appeal after failed attempts to find representation. Judge Stephen Roth cited a lack of funding under the current regulations as the major hindrance to advancing the case.
Thomas Brunker, assistant attorney general, commented on the case in his testimony.Comment on this story
"When Menzies' case returned to district court ... every qualified person who was contacted refused to take the case, citing lack of funding," Brunker said. "It took a year for Judge Roth to force counsel to take the case."
Brunker praised the changes in SB277.
"The logjam will be broken ... that's why we need this bill," Brunker said.
Maureen Hunsaker's mother, Betty Sudweeks, also testified before the committee.
"Matt had a 5-month-old sister and an 18-month-old brother who never got to know their mother," Sudweeks said. "Now that I'm getting older, I'm wondering if I will ever see closure."The Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice standing committee passed SB277 favorably back to the Senate floor for further consideration.