Victims, lawmakers discuss personal, financial costs of death penalty

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 14 2012 5:00 p.m. MST

Barbara Noriega tells about the murder of her mother and sister during the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice interim committee meeting at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The question before the committee was, in theory, simple.

How much does the death penalty cost?

From trial to execution, the estimate is $1.6 million, Gary Syphus of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst's Office reported to the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee Wednesday.

But how much does it really cost?

Craig Watson's cousin, Melvyn Otterstrom, was killed in October 1984 by Ronnie Lee Gardner. Otterstrom had a 2-year-old son who recently earned a PhD from Harvard and is doing cancer research.

"What if he finds something in his studies? And what if Mr. Gardner would have killed Melvyn two years earlier?" Watson asked. "I have a hard time when we talk about cost, because I understand there's X amount of dollars in a budget and I've been in this business long enough to figure that out. But there's also those things that money can't touch."

Watson, a Sandy police lieutenant, still cries when he talks about the loss, what it meant to their family and what it was like waiting 25 years to then watch Gardner die.  

"I don't know if the proper word is closure but I viewed the execution and what I can tell you is that Mr.  Gardner was treated a lot more humanely than the way he killed my cousin," Watson said. "I can also tell you that when it was over, there was a feeling of peace that comes over you. You'd have to be involved to understand it."

For an hour, the committee heard about the death penalty. They heard firm numbers about its cost, but also the philosophy behind it and the way it impacts families on both sides of capital cases.

Rep. Stephen Handy was the catalyst of the discussion "pertaining to this most serious and emotionally charged public policy issue in our state." He said he wanted questions about its cost and administration answered.  

"I want just to say that the more questions that we ask the more difficult this becomes," he said. "I'm under no illusion that people in the state of Utah want to change the present law … but these are the types of things I think that we should question from time to time. We ought to raise the issues. We ought to understand the process. We ought to understand how it works and how it may not work and look for solutions to make it, perhaps, work better."

Tom Brunker, who heads up the capital appeals division of the Utah Attorney General's Office, said there are two primary policy reasons behind the death penalty. The first is deterrence and the second is retribution. He said some people claim there is no deterrence "as though it had been established beyond question," but pointed to studies that show aggressive use of the death penalty does impact murder rates.

He detailed a number of some of Utah's most gruesome crimes, all committed by either current or former death row inmates.

"Deterrence is really only one of the justifications for the death penalty. The other is society's right to decide that certain murders … justify imposing the ultimate sanction," Brunker said.

Barbara Noriega's mother, Beth Potts, and her sister Kaye Tiede were killed by Von Lester Taylor and Edward Steven Deli in 1990. Their brutal murders at an Oakley cabin were highlighted by Brunker.

"There's no doubt these savages did this to my family," Noriega said. "If changes are going to be made, why are they not made here? Right here. It defies reason by anyone's standard that we have gone 22 years (without an execution). It's shocking. It's a travesty, and it might be a lot of things, but it's not justice."

The effect on her family is palpable.

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