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Death Penalty Amendment Fails in Utah

Utah's Attorney General Mark Shurtleff backed an amendment to our state constitution which would stop the decades of appeals available to death row inmates and bring it back under more reasonable controls. He spoke eloquently about this topic on his blog: Utah Attorney General - Mark Shurtleff.

"Our current justice system is broken. The death penalty in Utah has become a myth. Death row inmates are winning a war of attrition. The last murderer to be involuntarily executed in Utah was HiFi Shop murderer William Andrews in 1992. Please read this post, listen to the pleas of victims and help me by calling your legislator and asking them to support Senate Joint Resolution 14." --Read Entire Post

Well, the Utah Senate passed SJR14, which then became HJR14 and was defeated there in the House.

The Daily Herald reported:

Friday, 13 March 2009
Death penalty amendment fails in Utah House
Jennifer Dobner - The Associated Press

A proposal to amend the state constitution and let the Legislature regulate post-conviction appeals in death penalty cases has failed in the Utah House.

Senate Joint Resolution 14 needed 50 votes, or a two-thirds majority, to pass in the House and appear on the 2010 ballot for consideration by voters.

House members voted 38-35 on Thursday for the resolution, which some said would give the Legislature more power than the Utah courts.

The measure was backed by Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who has said Utah effectively has no death penalty because convicted killers have been allowed repeated appeals.

SJR14 would have streamlined the post-conviction process and shortened the amount of time convicted killers were on death row before execution.

Utah defense attorneys argued the proposal was too broad and would destroy post-conviction safeguards for some defendants. They also believed the bill would have implications for other criminal cases, including misdemeanor offenses and infractions.

Post-conviction appeals are usually filed on constitutional grounds. Prosecutors say defense attorneys sometimes abuse post-conviction petitions to delay a defendant's execution.

Shurtleff believes the Utah Supreme Court has ignored state laws governing post-conviction relief, giving defendants more time for appeals and delaying justice for the families of victims.

"If that's not stepping over the line of the balance of power, I don't know what is," the attorney general said Thursday.

Shurtleff said he watched the vote from House gallery with the parents of Maurine Hunsaker, a 26-year-old mother of three who was kidnapped and murdered in 1986. For Hunsaker's family, the defeat of SJR14 is another blow.

"It's very disappointing," Shurtleff said. "We're not done. We'll be back next year. We have to for the victims."

Utah has 10 men on death row, nine of whom have active appeals. About half the death row inmates committed their crimes or were convicted in the 1980s.

Defense attorneys expressed some surprise at HJR14's failure to make it through. The bill had easily passed the Utah Senate on a 23-6 vote. Thursday morning defense lawyers said they were unsure how many votes they could secure in the House.

"I think this is a victory for our constitutional form of government," said Kent Hart of Utah's federal public defender's office. "Although the public may not like persons who are convicted of serious crimes, our country has a tradition of affording even the worst offenders a thorough and fair review of their convictions."

Hart disagrees with Shurtleff's take on Utah Supreme Court rulings that have granted post-conviction relief to some on death row.

"They're saying 'if we think a petition has merit, we don't care how long it's been or what procedural bars exist,"' he said.

Hart said problems within the capital punishment system are a current topic of discussion by a judicial council committee, which includes judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys and the state's Constitutional Review Commission (CRC), whose membership includes several lawmakers.

"Those are the proper forums to find solutions," said Hart.

Shurtleff disagrees. After four meetings, Shurtleff says the CRC has shown no interest in tackling the problems. He also can't see any room for discussion between prosecutors and Utah's defense bar. "Not at all," he said. "They're winning in the Supreme Court, they are keeping their guys alive."

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I have to agree with Mark Shurtleff. There has to be a balance. 20 years of appeals on heinous crimes, some of which AG Shurtleff details on his blog, is horrifying and a flat slap in the face to the families of these murderers' victims. Do I believe every person receive an honest and just defense? Yes, of course I do. Do I think the pandering, dancing, and back room deals that goes on is part of that honest and just process? No, I don't.

The death penalty is not given lightly in Utah. There has to be special circumstances and again, AG Shurtleff outlines some of those crimes on his blog which helps us to understand just what those special circumstances might be.

The courts have trampled all over the responsibilities and rights of the legislative branch of our nation. It is time to stop that. I believe SJR14 which is also HJR14 would have begun that process here in Utah.
Death Penalty Amendment Fails in Utah Death Penalty Amendment Fails in Utah Reviewed by Candace Salima on Friday, March 13, 2009 Rating: 5