Is the death penalty dead in Utah?

Published: Sunday, Sept. 29 2013 12:10 a.m. MDT

Allgier avoided a possible death penalty as part of a plea deal and was sentenced in December to life in prison without parole. Gill said the Anderson family's desire to move on played a large part in the decision.

• Paul David Vara savagely raped and murdered a woman in a Sugar House park, mutilating her body. He was spared the death penalty despite committing one of the most heinous crimes some law enforcement officers said they'd ever seen. He was also convicted of raping another woman who suffered extensive injuries that required surgery.

He was sentenced in 2011 to life without parole, despite Judge Mark Kouris saying: "It's still not enough punishment for what you've done. … I don't know how a human being can do what you actually did."

• Matthew John Breck was charged and convicted in 2011, 13 years after sexually abusing, beating and stabbing a 10-year-old neighbor girl to death on her own front porch. Police believe Anna Palmer played with friends near Breck's house. He was sentenced to life without parole as part of a plea bargain.

• Damien Candland brutally beat, raped and strangled his aunt, then dumped her body in Hobble Creek Canyon after she testified against him in a theft case. He avoided the death penalty in 2011 when the Utah County Attorney's Office offered him a plea deal for the "cold-blooded" crime. He was sentenced to life without parole.

Those crimes are similar to those committed by five of the eight inmates currently on Utah's death row. Two of the eight facing execution killed two people in the same episode. The other is a convicted killer who murdered a fellow prison inmate in a brutal stabbing caught on tape.

Death penalty 'tool'

Gill said prosecutors should struggle over whether to push for the death penalty. He said it is a necessary "tool" but told the Deseret News it must be used sparingly and only after much time, thought and consideration.

"It really has to be that unique case," he said. "It has to be that case that is not just merely shocking the conscience of our community, but it is an amalgamation of a whole host of issues that are contributing to say that this person really is deserving of this ultimate punishment we have. And that's a very specific, fact-driven, case-by-case and very deliberative and deliberated process."

It shouldn't be used too often and lose its potency, he said. It also shouldn't be used "for the purpose of bluffing."

"What you want is a prosecutor who struggles with the death penalty, because it's a decision to take somebody's life," Gill said. "It shouldn't be something we do arbitrarily. It's not something that we should be cavalier about. It is not something we should reach to with indiscretion.

"That is not to say that there may not be circumstances where that tool needs to be used, but … this is something we take extremely seriously and we want to do it in the right circumstances, and if we're going to do it, then we intend on following through with it."

Since 2007, aggravated murder cases aren't officially deemed to be capital cases until prosecutors file notice in court that they plan to seek the death penalty, Stott said. Prosecutors have 60 days after a defendant is arraigned in court to file notice. An arraignment is typically held months after charges are filed, after a defendant has either had a preliminary hearing on the evidence against him or waives his right to that hearing.

"There's some rationale for that (extra time)," Gill said, "because as the preliminary information comes in and you gather more information, then you are more informed and theoretically in a position to make that (decision)."

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