Is the death penalty dead in Utah?

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

Family input

Prosecutors have a host of things to consider when they make the decision whether to pursue the death penalty in an aggravated murder case. There is the amount of time it takes to secure a conviction and death sentence followed by the years of appeals that have to make their way through both the state and federal court systems.

The most important, though, may be the people who have already lost the most.

"In all of our cases we're very concerned about what the victims want, but in these capital murder cases we work very extensively with the family of the victim to make sure they understand the process, they understand what they'll have to go through, they understand what's going to happen," Stott said.

"We take great consideration in what they want. They have a big stake in it, and all of our decisions generally always pass through the victim's family and then they have a major say in what occurs," he said.

Gill said the victim's family will be the ones who will have to continue on after the prosecutors get a death sentence and the appeals process has begun, which generally takes decades. They will be the ones who have to attend hearings and endure media reports as the years pass.

"The question is, what is the measure of justice that we're trying to achieve and sometimes I think a deliberated process is … you start with the victims," Gill said. "It's not just simply getting this in place, because you're also sentencing the victims to live through this process over the many years that this has to unfold.

"Sometimes we forget the emotional and psychological toll that this sometimes takes on a victim's family."

In many cases, the family does not want a death sentence. A number of capital murder cases have resulted in a life without parole sentence at least partially at the request of families who wanted to move past the crime and trial.

Gill said it's possible, however, that prosecutors will seek a death penalty despite a family's wishes.

"I can honestly say that I could think of scenarios where that might happen, because at the end of the day in a criminal prosecution, the victim has an incredible role to play but they do not control the litigation or the decision — the elected (district attorneys and judges) is responsible," he said.

Stott gave the example of Ronnie Lee Gardner, who shot and killed a defense attorney in open court and wounded a court bailiff in an escape attempt. Gardner was in court stemming from prior murder charges.

"The defense was able to come up with some evidence that the victim himself told people that if he were ever killed, he would not want the perpetrator to get the death penalty," Stott said. "But we went ahead with it anyway because of the totality of the circumstances, his background and the prior crimes and the fact that he was actually convicted of a murder and was in prison when he committed the new escape and murder."

Anderson family

The case could be made that Allgier, who killed Anderson and attempted to escape while already in custody, was similar to Gardner. But while the death penalty was being pursued against Allgier, Anderson's family wasn't necessarily in favor of the ultimate penalty.

"We were never pushing for a specific outcome and we never went in there with a preconceived idea about what should happen," said Mark Anderson, Stephen Anderson's cousin who also acts as the family's spokesman.

It's important for people to know that these cases are never as black and white as they might seem.

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