The Rocky Mountain Defense Fund, a non-profit coalition dedicated to putting an end to the death penalty in Utah, has been started by several prominent defense attorneys.
Lawyer Ronald Yengich argues that the death penalty does not do its purported job of discouraging homicide."It flat doesn't work and it brutalizes all of us," he said in announcing incorporation of the group this past week.
While the group of lawyers intends the organization to act as a "clearinghouse" for anti-death penalty information for lawyers with clients facing execution, the attorneys also have agreed to handle the appeal of Utah death-row inmate Elroy Tillman.
Tillman, 52, is awaiting execution for the 1983 ax murder of a 27-year-old Salt Lake City man. His direct appeal was denied by the Utah Supreme Court in a 3-2 split decision in December 1987. Tillman is scheduled to appear in 3rd District Court on a writ of habeas corpus next Thursday before Judge Homer Wilkinson.
"But we don't intend or expect to become the garbage men for the courts in death penalty cases," said Yengich, noting that the defense fund does not intend to regularly represent individual cases.
Instead, the fund will provide defense attorneys handling capital cases with ready material to battle the vast resources available to attorneys general throughout the country. It will tackle an individual case only when an inmate does not have an attorney.
Yengich noted that there are eight inmates on Utah's death row and 70 more condemned men in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Nevada. Nationally, more than 2,000 murderers are awaiting execution.
"It just isn't fair for one attorney, or even two, to face the considerable resources of the state in fighting these cases," he said. "This is so they don't have to do it alone."
The availability of the information - on computer - will circumvent attorneys having to essentially "reinvent the wheel" every time a capital case arises, said Yengich.
Other resources available through the defense fund will be secretarial and paralegal workers to take the load off of defense attorneys with often staggering case loads.
Yengich said he also hopes the fund will provide impetus to begin "an honest discussion about the death penalty" in Utah.
"We want to get away from the emotional issues," he said, "to get away from the raving pro-death penalty advocates screaming about vengeance and ignoring what it does to us as a society.
"We intend to challenge people's conscience," he added, acknowledging that it may be an uphill battle in Utah, where recent polls have indicated eight out of 10 citizens favor capital punishment.
"But I believe we here in Utah are a compassionate people who will listen to the facts," he said. "We think there are a lot of people in the community who are opposed to capital punishment."
Those numbers have grown, he believes, since the "outrageous" displays of public callousness witnessed this year in Florida at the execution for serial killer Ted Bundy and, to a lesser extent, in Utah when Hi Fi Shop killer Pierre Dale Selby was executed in 1987.
Groups participating in the defense fund include the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Utah Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, which is sponsoring the Western Regional Conference of its national coalition April 28-30 at the Salt Lake Community High School.