SALT LAKE CITY — Death-row inmates would have fewer chances to obtain stays of execution under a proposed law under consideration in the Utah Legislature.
In a bill sponsored by Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, capital murderers like Ronnie Lee Gardner, who died by firing squad in June, would limit the number of court motions they could file after being convicted. Gardner was on death row for nearly 25 years.
McIff said the idea is to get closure in cases more quickly than "the scores of years" some of them take.
"You watched that drama play out in the Ronnie Lee Gardner effort before the execution occurred," McIff told fellow members of the Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee on Wednesday. "There were numerous post-conviction petitions filed. Each time one of those is filed, should the execution be stayed? This amendment says no."
Gardner tried multiple avenues of appeal in the days before his execution, all of which were denied.
Basically, the proposed law would require death-row killers to raise all issues that could postpone the execution in their first post-conviction petition and not hold some issues to raise later if the initial arguments prove unsuccessful. However, there would be room to bring up newly discovered evidence or other potentially meritorious claims that couldn't be reasonably dealt with before the execution date.
McIff said the bill attempts to find a balance between endless appeals and justice.
"In the entire criminal justice system nothing would be more serious than the execution of an innocent person. The offsetting consideration is that justice delayed many times becomes justice denied," he said.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, wondered if the amendment would open the door for longtime death-row inmates to file motions based on the change, giving them a "special 18th bite at the apple."
McIff said he believes it would narrow the opportunity for appeals.
The bill also addresses when condemned killers may be appointed state-funded attorneys beyond the first post-conviction petition.
If they make claims that they could have made before, they would not get a lawyer paid for by the state. But if it's a new claim they couldn't raise before, they would be entitled to the counsel, said Tom Brunker, an assistant Utah attorney general assigned to capital cases.
Brunker said most states in the past have been more restrictive than Utah in the area of post-conviction relief and some states don't provide lawyers at all, adding it isn't constitutionally required to do so.
Utah currently has nine men on death row.
Douglas Stewart Carter, who fatally stabbed and shot a Provo woman in 1985, is furthest along in the legal process, but is at least three years from an execution date, Brunker said. Carter has appeals pending in both state and federal court.