SALT LAKE CITY — Death-row inmates would have fewer chances to delay their executions under a proposed law approved in a House committee Thursday.
Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, wants to limit the number of court petitions murderers like Ronnie Lee Gardner, who died by firing squad last June, could file after being convicted. Gardner was on death row for nearly 25 years.
HB202 would allow only one post-conviction petition. Death-row killers would have to raise all possible legal issue that could stay the execution in the first petition and not keep any in reserve should initial arguments prove unsuccessful.
"If you held it in your pocket like a piece of jerky when you got hungry, you can't do that," he said.
There would be room to bring up newly discovered evidence or other potentially meritorious claims that couldn't be reasonably dealt with before the execution date.
McIff said the idea is to bring closure to cases more quickly to keep victims' families from suffering.
"We never ever would want to execute someone who did not merit imposition of the death penalty," he said. At the same time, "justice delayed often becomes justice denied."
Assistant Attorney General Tom Brunker, who handles capital cases for the state, couldn't estimate the cost of numerous appeals, but said he put three months work into the two months before Gardner's execution.
"It is very time consuming," he said.
Brunker said it's not uncommon for death-row inmates like Gardner to file three or four post-conviction petitions.
The bill also addresses when condemned killers may be appointed state-funded attorneys beyond the first petition. The state would not have to pay for legal counsel unless issues are raised that couldn't have been brought up the first time.
Utah currently has nine men on death row.
Douglas Stewart Carter, who fatally stabbed and shot a Provo woman in 1985, is furthest along in the legal process, but is at least three years from an execution date, Brunker said. Carter has appeals pending in both state and federal court.