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August Miller, Deseret News
Retiring state prosecutor Creighton Horton stands in the state Capitol. He has spent 31 years in the legal system.

He's prosecuted bombers, serial murderers and men who believed they were told by God to kill women and children.

But after 31 years in the courtroom, recently retired assistant Utah attorney general Creighton Horton still considers himself the creative type.

"I'm more of a natural-born musician than a natural-born attorney," he jokes. "I started out as a creative writing major."

Although he was interested in film, writing and music, he became intrigued by trial law when his father told him that although there were many ways to make money, he should choose something that would promote the public good.

That advice, plus a trial advocacy class at UCLA and the movie "To Kill a Mockingbird," all convinced Horton he could make a difference through the justice system.

And for more than three decades, he's followed his father's advice.

It was his work in the courtroom that led to the convictions of infamous Utah killers like Joseph Paul Franklin, Arthur Gary Bishop, Ronnie Lee Gardner and Ron Lafferty.

But Horton did more than just wade through the bloody details of crimes, looking for justice for victims and their families.

He also trekked to Capitol Hill to argue for improvements to the laws he was interpreting — affecting change on nearly three-fourths of Utah's criminal homicide laws.

But one of his favorite jobs as a prosecutor was training other attorneys.

"It's important to set the right tone with the young prosecutors," said Horton, who still plans to teach a yearly course to new lawyers. He tells them their ethics and reputation are the best things they have.

He counsels them always to consider the "right thing." And he reminds them of their goal.

"The goal is justice," he said, "not just to win. You can't get involved in this sort of competition."

After all, a win may secure a sentence, but it doesn't bring back a loved one.

"There's certainly no joy in getting a death verdict," Horton said. "(The death penalty) is there; it's on the books for the worst cases. But it's not a cause for celebration. (After that verdict) you don't go out and high-five each other like you've just won a football game."

Instead, there is a quiet, almost poignant sense of accomplishment when he knows he has done his job by ensuring justice for the victim's family and safety for the community.

Horton's work started in the Salt Lake County Attorney's Office where he was a felony prosecutor for nine years before being plucked by the Utah Attorney General's Office to do white-collar crime.

But within three months, Addam Swapp and John Timothy Singer blew up an LDS stake center in Kamas and fatally shot corrections officer Fred House, bringing on both a federal bombing case and a state murder case.

"That changed the course of my work in the A.G.'s office," Horton said with a wry smile. "It pretty much set the tone that I wasn't the white-collar crime guy."

From then on, when Horton wasn't working a murder case, he was advising attorneys on murder cases or developing legislation related to murder cases, eventually becoming the criminal justice division chief.

Horton is especially pleased with a bill he worked on that in 1992 allowed "life without parole" as an option alongside "life with parole" and the death penalty.

In the former "life" or "death" system, Horton watched too many murder cases fall short of a death penalty verdict because one lone juror couldn't impose the ultimate sanction. That meant that a convicted murderer who logically should never be released from prison might be paroled short of a life sentence.

Life without parole provides a harsh, final penalty that protects the community and avoids the long, painful appeal process for victims' families in death penalty cases, Horton said.

After spending hours each day on such tragic cases, Horton said he used music and even poetry to separate himself from work.

"I don't claim these images after hours," was the subject of one poem.

"Some of it is kind of hard to take," he continued. "But there's also the sense when you're working on a case and exposed to something rough, you're doing it for a purpose."

For Horton, it always comes back to that purpose: promoting the public good. But minus that purpose, he's not interested.

Which is why he doesn't watch those intense, gory movies.

"When you see enough in real life, it doesn't become your entertainment," he said. But now, retired at 59, he's ready for some real entertainment: Europe for a month with his wife and two daughters.

"We're going to use up our whole life savings," he said, chuckling. "We'll come back flat broke."

Then, he jokes he'll need to find another job to keep him busy and pay the bills. Maybe he'll write a book.

Or there's always music. He plays the banjo, mandolin, guitar, keyboard, piano and kazoo.

A musical "Jack of all trades," as he calls himself, he played in a Tijuana brass-type band in high school, then a ragtime group that got free pizza for weekend shows. Currently, he plays guitar for the group JABOOM — or Just A Bunch of Old Men. They rock out to pretty much anything.

If he's feeling more mellow, there's always the family's Celtic band, Aberdeen, with his two daughters.

But his sonorous skills are not what others remember most about the curly haired prosecutor.

"When it came to so many different issues that prosecutors face, (Horton) was just such a brain trust," said Emery County Attorney David Blackwell. "I would get on the phone and call him and he would have an answer, or he'd let you know where you could find an answer in a short amount of time. He was very valuable that way."

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Blackwell first worked with Horton in 1993 on the murder of Utah Highway Patrol trooper Dennis "Dee" Lund, who was shot by an Indiana teenager. Due to the defendant's age and some complicated mental health defense issues, Horton stepped in to offer his expertise, Blackwell said.

"The thing I liked about him, he came down and he helped, but he didn't take over (the) case," he said, "even though he had more experience."

"From then on, he was a friend and a colleague that I really treasured," Blackwell continued. "I'm happy for him, for his retirement, but, man, we're going to miss him."

E-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com