SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (KUTV) — After lengthy debate and passionate testimony on all sides, a Utah House committee narrowly defeated a bill repealing the death penalty in Utah.
The 5 to 6 vote came late Monday after a nearly three-hour hearing of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee and a strong plea from House Majority Leader Mike Schultz (R-Hooper) to vote down House Bill 147.
"This bill would remove the possibility of death sentence for all future crimes, no matter how horrible," Schultz said just before the vote. "A future Ted Bundy could not receive the death penalty if this bill passed.."
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Lowry Snow (R-St. George), would have removed death as a punishment for aggravated murder committed after May 4 unless a prosecutor filed an intent to seek the death penalty before that date. The bill also would have added a possible sentence of 45 years to life for that crime.
Snow argued the death penalty leads to excessive costs to taxpayers and does not bring peace or healing to victims.
“When something is not right, we need to fix it or get rid of it. The death penalty doesn’t work,” Snow said, also noting the risk of executing an innocent person. “I think it’s time for Utah to get rid of this albatross.”
But opposition to the bill was strong. House committee members heard from loved ones of Lizzy Shelley, a 5-year-old Cache County girl who was killed by her uncle, Alex Whipple, in 2019. Whipple avoided the death penalty in exchange for telling police where the girl’s body was.
“There are monsters in the world that should never be out of prison,” Jessica Black, Lizzy’s mother, tearfully told lawmakers. “Having the death penalty allowed us to find our daughter and put the monster in prison for the rest of his life.”
Speaking in support of eliminating the death penalty was Sharon Weeks, sister of Brenda Lafferty. Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter were both murdered in American Fork in 1984. Her two brothers-in-law, Dan and Ron Lafferty, were convicted of the killings.
In emotional testimony, Weeks described the lengthy legal process her family went through without resolution. While Dan Lafferty is serving life in prison, Ron Lafferty was sentenced to death but died of natural causes in 2019.
“The death penalty for me was like a neon light shining, and I was focused on receiving it,” Weeks said. “I knew that I had to have it in order to move forward, as was explained to us by the state.”
Thinking about Ron Lafferty and his pending death sentence every day, she said, was consuming. “It eclipses everything that you do.”
But family members of several other victims shared equally heartfelt and emotional stories in pushing for capital punishment to remain in force.
“This bill will potentially give the man that killed my mom a parole date,” said Matt Hunsaker, son of Maurine Hunsaker who was murdered in 1986. Her killer, Ralph Menzies, remains on death row.
In fact, speaking in opposition to the bill, the Utah Attorney General’s Office argued current death row inmates would likely all sue for legal relief, adding up to a decade in additional court hearings.
“You will not save families trauma,” said Andrew Peterson, capital case coordinator with the Attorney General’s office. “But this bill will inflict the very harm on the cases that it was intended to remove to other families.”
Peterson also said removing the death penalty would not save time for victims’ families in the courtroom because “non-capital inmates endlessly follow the same pattern of abusive litigation that retraumatizes victims and families.”
An effort to repeal the death penalty in Utah in 2016 passed the Senate and got through a House committee, but the bill died on the House floor as the session ended.