Utah could see jump in capital punishment
Sunday, January 21, 2007
BROCK VERGAKIS - The Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY -- Death penalty opponents are using a recent botched lethal injection in Florida, the controversy over the hangings in Iraq and the 30th anniversary of the firing squad execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah to call for a moratorium on state-sponsored executions.
It's wishful thinking.
While New Jersey and Maryland are considering joining a growing list of states looking to abolish the death penalty, Utah's lawmakers are considering expanding its use.
Nationally, "there is a kind of a movement to remove capital punishment, which I think is a scary and dangerous thing. Removing the capital punishment offense is one of the worst things we can do for public safety," said Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman.
Wimmer, a West Valley City police officer, wants some twice-convicted sex offenders eligible for the death penalty as well as anyone who murders a child younger than 14.
"This is the year that we stand up as a state and take our children back. This is the year when we say 'You keep your hands off our kids and if you don't, you're going to pay a consequence, you're going to pay a penalty. You're going to face the music for your evil deeds,"' Wimmer said.
Wimmer's ideas make for great rhetoric but could do more harm than good, said Dave Elliott, communications director for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
"It's a feel good measure that not only won't make our kids any safer, but actually could lead to more danger because what incentive would there be for a child molester not to go ahead and kill his victim, so the victim couldn't testify against him?" he said.
Utah would become the sixth state to make the death penalty an option for certain sex offenses against children if the measure is approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
No one convicted of a sex offense has been executed since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to reinstate capital punishment 30 years ago. One inmate is on death row in Louisiana following his 2003 conviction for raping an 8-year-old girl.
But legal scholars have questioned the constitutionality of the death penalty for a crime not involving murder.
In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the death penalty for a Georgia man convicted of raping an adult woman, describing it as "an excessive penalty for the rapist who, as such, does not take human life."
"It's really questionable. We reserve the death penalty in this country for the worst of the worst. We reserve it for people in the context of murder," said Kathryn Kase, a capital defense attorney in Houston who provides legal assistance to those unable to afford a lawyer.
It's Wimmer's contention that the sexual assault of a child is just as bad as taking someone's life.
Lydia Kalish, Utah's coordinator for Amnesty International, said her jaw dropped when she learned Utah was considering expanding the list of death penalty crimes.
In addition to Wimmer's bills, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, is also looking to expand the death penalty's use.
His bill would make it a capitol offense if a child died during an aggravated sexual assault or during aggravated child abuse.
"Why don't they just put them in prison for life?" asked Kalish.
The response from Wimmer and Ray: The death penalty is a deterrent.
"If we save a few lives a year because somebody is afraid of losing their life -- great. If you take a life there's a price," Ray said.
But a New Jersey report suggests otherwise. Written by a 13-member commission formed in late 2005 by the legislature, the report concluded that New Jersey's death penalty, which has not been used in more than four decades, neither deters crime nor helps victims' families because such cases drag on for years.
"The alternative of life imprisonment in a maximum security institution without the possibility of parole would sufficiently ensure public safety and address other legitimate social and penological interests, including the interests of the families of murder victims," the report said.
However, Wimmer says he has no doubt the death penalty is a deterrent.
"Absolutely. ... The violator is no longer around to commit the crime again. That's an obvious deterrent," he said.
Utah has seldom imposed the death penalty.
With last words "Let's do it," Gary Gilmore was shot by a firing squad on Jan. 17, 1977, for killing a motel clerk six months earlier. The execution made Utah the first state in the country to put someone to death after a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that let states bring back the death penalty after a 10-year moratorium.
Since Gilmore, the state has executed five others. Nine more people are on death row, including four who have chosen to die by firing squad, said Department of Corrections spokesman Jack Ford.
This weekend, death penalty opponents scheduled a vigil at the Utah State Prison, where Gilmore was executed.
Members of the group also hope video showing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein being taunted before his execution Dec. 30 and subsequent images of his half-brother being decapitated during hanging will help turn the public against capital punishment.
Kalish said she's ashamed executions are still allowed in the U.S. She notes the Dec. 13 execution of career criminal Angel Nieves Diaz, 55, in Florida. He was condemned for fatally shooting a Miami topless bar manager 27 years ago. It took 34 minutes and required two doses of drugs to kill Diaz by lethal injection.
A medical examiner determined that prison officials botched the insertion of the needles at the execution, leading Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to suspend all executions in the state.
Kalish uses that execution as a prime reason why capital punishment should be abandoned. But Ray said he wouldn't mind if more of them turned out that way.
"So it took a little longer for the guy to die. It doesn't weigh on my mind at all," Ray said. "I don't really care if they feel pain when they're executed. I hope they do. I hope they suffer a lot."
Kalish contends that executions degrade society and do nothing to make victims' families heal.
Death penalty opponents also contend that the long, required appeals process makes the death penalty a costly option for government.
But Wimmer and Ray contend any cost increases that occur if the capital crime list is expanded, it's money well-spent. They say it's time Utah defines it values.
"Is it worth it? Yeah, it is. There has to be a point in time you draw the line in the sand and send a strong message that you're not going to touch our kids," Wimmer said.
On the Net: Utah Legislature www.le.utah.gov
National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty www.nacdp.orgThis story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A1.