Are There Any Exceptions to the Death Penalty?

Approximately 1,417 people have been executed in the United States since 1976.  Seven of these executions took place in Utah, which controversially reinstated the firing squad option in March 2015.  State laws governing capital punishment are strict, and outright ban the death penalty for certain types of defendants.  In this article, Salt Lake City murder defense attorney Darwin Overson will explain when the death penalty is prohibited in Utah.

U.S. Supreme Court Rules Death Penalty for Minors Unconstitutional

If you’ve been to our legal blog before, you may remember our earlier article discussing when Utah uses the death penalty, or capital punishment.  In short, it’s extremely rare.  It can only be used when a defendant pleads guilty to or is convicted of aggravated murder, and even then, it’s still not guaranteed.  From 2008 through the summer of 2013, Utah prosecutors only sought the death penalty in about 13% of the state’s aggravated murder cases, with the vast majority opting for life imprisonment instead.  When a prosecutor seeks the death penalty, the case is referred to as capital.  A non-capital case is one in which the death penalty is not being sought.

In those exceptional cases where execution is both permitted by law and sought by the prosecutor, certain factors must be in place in accordance with Utah Code § 76-5-202.  For instance, the prosecutor must file a notice of intent to seek the death penalty within 60 days of the defendant’s arraignment (where the charges are formally announced), unless the parties agree to a different arrangement or the court finds good reason to allow a delayed notice.

Due to its permanence – and the heavy moral and ethical implications of putting another human being to death – capital punishment is not taken lightly by legislators, judges, or prosecutors.  Not only do strict regulations govern the use of the death penalty – they also completely prohibit its imposition on certain defendants.

One clear-cut example of a death penalty ban applies to defendants who were juveniles when the crime was committed.  Utah Code § 76-5-202(3)(e) prohibits capital punishment, automatically making aggravated murder a noncapital felony, if the defendant was 17 years old or younger at the time of the offense.  This provision is supported by a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court Case known as Roper v. Simmons, in which the Court found – in a narrow 5-4 decision – that it was unconstitutional to execute defendants who committed their crimes as minors, because doing so would violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Delivering the opinion of the Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited several studies confirming that “[a] lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility are found in youth more often than in adults,” and that “adolescents are overrepresented statistically in virtually every category of reckless behavior.”  In recognizing this “diminished culpability of juveniles,” the Court argued that “justifications for the death penalty apply to [minors] with lesser force than to adults.”

“Retribution is not proportional,” wrote Justice Kennedy, “if the law’s most severe penalty is imposed on [a person] whose culpability or blameworthiness is diminished, to a substantial degree, by reason of youth and immaturity.”

Utah Bans Capital Punishment for Intellectually Disabled Defendants

The Court’s rationale in Roper v. Simmons is clear and thorough: teenagers are often prone to peer pressure, have yet to attain emotional maturity, and are objectively different from adults in terms of their decision-making abilities, simply because their brains are still physically developing.  In light of these facts, the Court found that a different set of standards for culpability – and punishment – should be applied.

Yet “youth and immaturity” are not the only characteristics which exempt a defendant from the possibility of execution.  A similar line of reasoning, albeit with different specifics, follows for defendants with an intellectual disability, who are also exempt from capital punishment in Utah.

Utah’s legislation refers to intellectual disability as mental retardation – and establishes a very strict definition of the term.  Under Utah Code § 77-15a-102, a defendant shall be considered mentally retarded only if both of the following statements are true:

  • The defendant’s overall intellectual functioning is “significantly” below average, which causes major difficulties adapting to everyday life, especially with regard to reasoning and/or impulse control.
  • These characteristics and their effects become apparent before the defendant turns 22 years old.

That being said, state law also makes an exception for people who do not match the two-part definition supplied above.  In this scenario, the above criteria are virtually identical, with two notable changes:

  • The defendant’s impaired functioning doesn’t necessarily have to involve difficulties with reasoning and/or impulse control.
  • The prosecutor plans to use a confession by the defendant as evidence, but the confession isn’t supported by any additional significant evidence.

The defendant’s intellectual disability can be addressed at any time during capital criminal proceedings.  This is provided by Utah Code § 77-15a-103.  However, if the issue is going to be raised, the Utah criminal defense attorney must serve the prosecutor with a notice of intent to invoke this exception.  At this point, the court will require the Department of Human Services (DHS) to select two or more experts on mental health, whose job is to examine the defendant and present their findings to the court.

Importantly, under Utah Code § 77-15a-103(13)(a), “The defendant is presumed not to possess the mental deficiencies” described earlier.  This means the court will assume the defendant does not have an intellectual disability, unless there is a preponderance of evidence which would indicate otherwise.  The next section of the statute provides that “if the court finds the defendant mentally retarded, it shall issue an order… stating that the death penalty is not a sentencing option in the case before the court.”

If your child or loved one has been charged with aggravated murder in the Salt Lake City area, it is critical to consult with a highly experienced Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible.  Attorney Darwin Overson has more than 16 years of experience defending clients against a wide variety of felony murder charges in Utah, including manslaughter, negligent homicide, child abuse homicide, and homicide by assault.  To set up a free, confidential legal consultation, call Darwin at (801) 758-2287 right away.  Darwin is available around the clock, including nights and weekends.