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.
Handy said he was reading about states that had done away with the death penalty — some of them pointing to the cost — and began to wonder about the cost of the death penalty in Utah.
"No one had asked that question before and no one knew," he said. "It was a very difficult thing to get our arms around."
The final estimate from the Legislative Fiscal Analyst's Office was that it cost $1.6 million more than housing someone for life. Handy said there was little public response to the finding.
"There isn't a huge groundswell," he said. "As I got through the process, it became pretty clear to me that taxpayers for the most part are comfortable with the current policy."
A 2010 Deseret News/KSL poll found 79 percent of Utahns supported the death penalty. Handy said he believes the U.S. will "come around."
"It's an extremely critical important public policy issue," he said. "We don't think about it because it's rarely used, but the next time we have an execution or get close to an execution, that's when emotions and feelings (come). We need that consciousness to come out of the woodwork."
Dellapiana said he believes that if the downward trend continues, the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually find that death sentences are carried out so rarely that they are cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment.
"It's like being struck by lightning," he said.
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Death penalty in 2013
• The number of death sentences in 2013 (80) represents a 75 percent decline from the peak of the mid-1990s. In 1996, there were 315 death sentences handed down.
• At 39, the number of executions in 2013 decreased 10 percent from 2012, when 43 people were executed. Fifty-nine percent of the executions took place in Texas, which had 16, and Florida, which carried out seven.
• Maryland repealed the death penalty in 2013, becoming the sixth state in six years to do so. Capital punishment remains an option in 32 states.
• The total population on death row has decreased every year since 2001.
• As of April 1, there were 3,108 inmates on death row nationwide. There are eight men on death row in Utah.
Source: Death Penalty Information Center
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