National support for death penalty at 40-year low

Published: Sunday, Jan. 5 2014 5:00 p.m. MST

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 — Public defender Ralph Dellapiana remembers the first time he really grasped the consequences of the death penalty.

He had just been assigned to the case of Curtis Allgier, who was facing a possible death sentence for the 2007 killing of corrections officer Stephen Anderson, and was specifically responsible for the sentencing phase. As such, it would fall to him to try to convince a jury to not call for death.

"What was previous to that just an intellectual exercise became real," Dellapiana said. "I felt like I had another human being's life in my hands. If I didn't do my job, I would be part of the reason he was killed."

The realization prompted the now-director of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty to believe "the death penalty was something that should be questioned."

A recently released report from the Death Penalty Information Center indicated that not only did a Gallup poll show nationwide support for the death penalty at a 40-year low, but it also found that there were 39 executions in 2013 — only the second time in 19 years that the number has been below 40. The report also states that there were 80 death sentences handed down in 2013, which is "near the lowest number since 1973."

"I think it's a recognition that people … realize the system is so costly and time-consuming and error-prone that (the death penalty) is just not worth it," Dellapiana said.

He pointed to the number of exonerations seen nationally as another explanation for the waning support for capital punishment.

"Even if you're not opposed to the death penalty, you need to be opposed to innocent people being executed," Dellapiana said.

The report also cited "the ongoing problem that states have had in finding a consistent means of carrying out executions" as a reason for their declining number.

"California, North Carolina, Arkansas and Maryland … have not had an execution in over seven years because of their inability to settle on a lethal injection protocol," according to the report. "Federal executions are on hold for the same reason."

The report indicates that European manufacturers that produce many of the drugs used in executions are prohibited from exporting the drugs for such purposes.

Dellapiana said most countries see the death penalty as a "barbaric practice."

"I think the U.S. is behind the curve," he said.

Dellapiana was especially troubled by the fact, referenced in the report, that only 2 percent of counties in the U.S. are responsible for the majority of cases leading to execution since 1976. Two percent of counties are also responsible for the majority of the death row population.

"It just seems unfair that the application of the death penalty should be by ZIP code," Dellapiana said. "Right off the top, there's sometime wrong with that."

He said sentences of life without parole protect the public, reduce costs and provide swifter justice. Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty want to see that option replace the death penalty as the ultimate sanction in Utah.

"People say, 'I'm not opposed (to the death penalty) in theory, but it's not worth doing when we have this other option,'" Dellapiana said.

Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, said Utahns seem content with the current system.

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