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.
"To be hit with a tragedy of this magnitude … is like filling a house with a gas. It permeates every corner, every nook and cranny of every room. It just permeates it. And you open the door and you try to clear it out. You plant flowers. You, in that very hyper way, pursue hobbies and volunteer in the community and stay close to friends.
"You cling to family. You try to breathe the healthy air. Then the door's slammed. With all of the appeals, all of it, it's slammed," she said.
Noriega's mother was famous for her cinnamon rolls and the way she served endlessly. Potts endured the deaths of two husbands with aplomb and had a way of "making you feel like you were the most important thing on two legs." Tiede was also beloved by Noriega, who thought her sister "beautiful, fun to be with."
"They lived. They're not abstract things. They lived and they were loved and adored by this family," she said. "Our family feels the death penalty actually represents a reverence for the sanctity of the lives of the innocent."
But Peggy Ostler asked the committee to consider the lives of other innocent people — those who have to live with the terrible decisions of their loved ones. She told of her brother, Michael Anthony Archuleta, who was sentenced to death in connection with the Nov. 22, 1988, murder of Southern Utah University student Gordon Ray Church, 28.
Ostler said Archuleta was adopted into their family at age 5 after being born to a mother involved with drugs, alcohol and prostitution and suffering abuse and neglect in his early years. Her parents loved and accepted him as their own.
"If love alone was enough to compensate for his beginning, he would not be where he is today," Ostler said, noting the ongoing love her parents have. "The final blow to them would be to see the execution of their son. He has made terrible, terrible choices in his life but I see him as a son and a father and a friend and a little brother and it's that circle of people who would be most affected by his death."
She said her family is haunted by the knowledge that they may someday "experience the nightmare of his execution" and have also ridden the roller coaster of appeals and ongoing hearings. She asked the committee to consider the impact of the death penalty on all affected families.
"I believe that life with no chance of parole might be a more appropriate sentence for him," Ostler said. "The concept of the death penalty is not a matter of not wanting him to die, but of sparing those innocent people that are emotionally connected to him from that painful experience."
Ralph Dellapiana, a public defender and director of Utahns for an Alternative to the Death Penalty, said there are other costs than those presented to the committee, including the additional time spent on potential death penalty cases before they even go to trial. He was adamant that the costs to the state and families would decrease if the maximum penalty was life in prison without the possibility of parole. He said those cases typically take closer to one or two years to adjudicate.
"One thing I wish to reiterate, is a lot of the suffering family and victims go through in my experience is due to the fact that on these death penalty cases they are carried out and dragged out, 20-25 years," Dellapiana said. "And every time there's an appeal, the stitches to their wounds are ripped open again."
Death penalty cases take so long because of the appeals process, which he said can't be shortened because of what's at stake. He pointed to the cases of those exonerated on death row nationwide that make the appellate process vital.
"The process, as long as we're going to try and kill people, is going to be long," he said.
Watson pointed to Gardner's case, especially the fact that Gardner committed two murders following or during escape attempts. Life in prison doesn't necessarily mean safety, he said.
"Our prison system is super but (Gardner) still figured out ways to escape and he still figured out ways to kill people," Watson said. "And you know what? With the death sentence, there are no recurring offenders and we can go on with our lives."
Handy said it is unclear what, if anything, will come of Wednesday's discussion. Archuleta's attorney, David Christensen, said he believes "any open and honest engagement of this issue to be beneficial."
Ostler was just glad to have participated.
"It helps us to be able to air our feelings," she said. "(Archuleta) left me a message on Sunday saying, 'Thanks for doing this for me and the other men up here.' There's another side to it. We're all innocent. We've all been impacted by his decisions. … It's been 23 years of waiting."
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