SALT LAKE CITY — Dave Noriega finds it disgusting that state lawmakers pushing to abolish the death penalty in Utah would try to tell his family what justice means.
Noriega's grandmother, Beth Potts, and aunt, Kaye Tiede, were brutally murdered in their Summit County cabin three days before Christmas in 1990. One of their killers, Von Lester Taylor, sits on Utah's death row.
"The only one serving this life sentence — this has been 27 years — is our family," he told the House Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement Committee on Wednesday. "Speaker (Greg) Hughes and Rep. Gage Froerer, do you have any idea how deplorable it is to listen to you tell our families what kind of justice we deserve?"
Noriega, a KSL radio talk show host, said it's not about revenge or deterrence, but about justice, "and you will be depriving our family of it."
Froerer, R-Huntsville, with the backing of Hughes, R-Draper, is sponsoring legislation to do away with capital punishment. HB379 would ban the state from seeking the death penalty for aggravated murder committed after May 7, 2018. It would not affect the nine men on Utah's death row now.
Christine Stenquist, whose sister was tortured and murdered in Georgia in 2010, has a different view of justice than the one Noriega expressed. Despite her feelings of anger, vengeance and desire for justice, her family asked prosecutors not pursue the death penalty, she said.
"We knew that with the death penalty, we would spend decades, decades reliving this," said.
Ultimately, her sister's killer was sentenced to life in prison, said Stenquist, of Kaysville.
"Our family left the courthouse knowing justice had been served right then and there," she said. "We were spared decadeslong of waiting for an execution that haunts families in capital cases."
The committee voted 7-4 to send the bill to the House floor after an abbreviated debate. A motion to hold the bill failed.
Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, noted that lawmakers spent more time discussing another bill in the committee about the shooting of police dogs than they did about abolishing the death penalty.
"These people deserve the time on both sides of the issue to voice their concerns, and we deserve the time to vet it well," he said.
Reed Richards, a former Democratic chief deputy attorney general, argued the death penalty offers an option that many victims' families support.
"I think if you were to bring in all the victims' families of those who are on death row in Utah, you would find unanimously that they are in favor of the death penalty and would hope you would allow that to continue," said Richards, who represents the Statewide Association of Prosecutors.
Jensie Anderson, a University of Utah law professor, testified that the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project she heads has proved that innocent people are convicted of crimes and sentenced to die.29 comments on this story
"There is a real risk that an innocent person will be executed," she said.
The Utah Attorney General's Office has not taken a position on the bill, but Andrew Peterson, the state's capital case coordinator, said none of the men on Utah's death row are innocent.
In 2016, a bill to outlaw capital punishment in Utah passed in the Senate but died in the House. Both Froerer and Hughes opposed the measure and say they have had a change of heart since then. They expect an uphill battle again this year.