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Is the death penalty dead in Utah?

Published: Monday, Sept. 30 2013 4:26 p.m. MDT

An inmate hangs his hands outside the bars at the Utah State Prison Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — It has been more than five years since anyone has been added to Utah's death row.

But that doesn't mean there's been a shortage of brutal murders that qualify as potential death penalty cases.

From Jan. 1, 2008, to Aug. 13, 2013, an analysis of data from the Utah state courts shows that 66 aggravated murder charges were filed against 54 people statewide, meaning prosecutors believed the elements of the crimes could qualify them as potential capital murder cases. But prosecutors took the next step — filing a notice of intent to seek the death penalty — in only seven of those cases, a search of court records shows.

"We may file several aggravated murder cases a year, but that does not mean they're capital cases," veteran Salt Lake County deputy district attorney Robert Stott said.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said notice of intent to seek the death penalty has only been filed by his office three or four times since 1992. Since Gill took the D.A. post in 2010, he said he has yet to file a notice of intent to seek the death penalty in a case.

Polls show that a large majority of Utahns support the use of the death penalty — more so than the rest of the country. Yet in many cases, Utah prosecutors are not pursuing the ultimate punishment.

Is the death penalty dead in Utah?

Gill, who runs the largest state prosecution office in the state, said there are current cases where the death penalty is still being considered, but he declined to comment specifically on which cases those might be.

Gill and Stott pulled data from their office that showed that between 1986 and 2011, 613 people were charged with murder in Salt Lake County. Of that number, 73 — or 12 percent — were charged with aggravated murder.

Of those 73 cases, 4.3 percent resulted in a death sentence.

"So compared to all the murder cases filed during this (25-year) time … less than one half of 1 percent of all the murder cases resulted in the death penalty," Gill said.

Six of those 54 aggravated murder cases filed statewide in the past five-plus years resulted in the next harshest sentence — life without parole. One ended in suicide. Prosecutors still have the option to file notice that they plan to seek the death penalty in 25 cases.

Experts offer several reasons for not pursuing a death penalty, including the relatively new option of sentencing a person to prison without any chance of parole; the extremely long, expensive and complicated appeals process for anyone sentenced to death; and desires of some victims' families to see an end to a criminal case for closure.

But what kind of murder case today would outweigh those considerations? Consider the following killings that were originally charged as potential capital murder cases but were ultimately not pursued as such:

• Esar Met is accused of raping a 9-year-old girl who was looking for someone to play with. Police say he strangled his neighbor and beat her to death in his apartment, just 50 yards away from her own home. When officers found her body, her hand was still clutching some of his hairs.

Gill announced in February he would not seek the death penalty against Met, partly because the case had been languishing due to language barriers and other issues and he wanted to "move this case along."

• Curtis Allgier, a white supremacist prison inmate, shot and murdered police officer Stephen Anderson at University Hospital to escape custody. He then used Anderson's weapon to hijack a vehicle and lead police on a chase before pointing a gun at the head of a restaurant employee during a standoff.

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