When Does Utah Use the Death Penalty?

Even when a person is convicted of murder, Utah still cannot use the death penalty.  In this state, there is only one type of criminal conviction which can result in a sentence of capital punishment: aggravated murder.  But what makes murder charges “aggravated”? What happens when prosecutors decide to seek the death sentence, and most importantly for defendants and their family members, are there any ways to reduce the charges and avoid facing capital punishment?

Executions in Utah: the Firing Squad

Use of the death penalty in Utah is exceptionally rare.  Only seven individuals, all male, have been put to death since 1977:

  • Gary Gilmore, 1977, firing squad.
  • Dale Selby Pierre, 1987, lethal injection.
  • Arthur Bishop, 1988, lethal injection.
  • William Rexs, 1992, lethal injection.
  • John Albert Taylor, 1996, firing squad.
  • Joseph Mitchell Parsons, 1999, lethal injection.
  • Ronnie Lee Gardner, 2010, firing squad.

Full reinstatement of the partially-discontinued firing squad option remains a point of controversy, revitalized by last year’s rash of botched injections: Joseph Rudolph Wood in Arizona, Dennis McGuire in Ohio, Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma.  In November of 2014, the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee passed a bill allowing Utah to use the firing squad in cases where lethal injection was unavailable due to regulations on necessary chemicals.

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When is Murder Aggravated?

While the method of execution varies, the circumstances never do: capital sentencing always involves aggravated murder.  But what is it that makes murder “aggravated” to begin with?

There are many answers to that question.  The following is a non-exhaustive list of reasons murder charges can be elevated to aggravated murder charges under Section 76-5-202 of the Utah Code:

  • The murder was committed:
    • By an inmate while in prison.
    • During the course of another felony, like sexual assault or aggravated kidnapping or burglary.
    • In order to stop or avoid an arrest.
    • In order to escape police custody.
    • In order to make money.
    • In order to keep a witness from testifying.
    • Against a police officer, firefighter, judge, probation or parole officer, prosecutor, or juror.
    • By using poison (or a normally non-lethal substance in lethal concentrations).
    • By using a bomb.
    • With any weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
    • While trying to hijack a boat, plane, train, or public transportation.
    • Against someone younger than 14 years old.
    • For political reasons (e.g. the murder of a candidate running for public office).
    • In an “especially heinous, atrocious, cruel, or exceptionally depraved manner…”
  • The defendant has a previous conviction of:
    • Murder or aggravated murder (including attempts).
    • Rape, sexual assault, or sodomy.
    • Aggravated burglary, robbery, or arson.

Intent to Seek the Death Penalty

While aggravated murder can be a capital felony, it isn’t always (or often) treated that way by the courts.  More often, judges and prosecutors call for life sentences in prison.  Among the 54 individuals convicted of aggravated murder in Utah from January of 2008 through August of 2013, prosecutors sought capital punishment for only seven in total (or about 13%).

“It really has to be that unique case,” said Salt Lake County D.A. Sim Gill in 2013.  “It has to be that case that is not just merely shocking the conscience of our community, but it is an amalgamation of a whole host of issues that are contributing to say that this person really is deserving of this ultimate punishment we have.”

At the time of this writing, January of 2015, 49-year-old Danny LeRoy Logue is on trial for the first degree aggravated murder of 32-year-old Andy Purcell, who was shot in the forehead after allegedly “snitching” on a drug deal.  Prosecutors are not presently seeking the death penalty against Logue.

In those rare cases where the prosecution does seek the death sentence, under Section 76-5-202(3)(c) of the Utah Code the prosecutor must file what’s called a “notice of intent to seek the death penalty” within 60 days of the defendant’s arraignment, which is the hearing where the defendant is formally notified of the charges and enters his or her plea.

Like a divorce complaint, the notice of intent must be served on the defendant and also filed with the court handling the case.  The prosecution may be able to extend the normal 60-day deadline in cases where the court finds “good cause.”


Reducing Your Charges: Affirmative Defenses

An affirmative defense is a legal justification that removes criminal liability and therefore leads to the charges being reduced.  For example, many people are familiar with the idea of pleading insanity, thanks to numerous (if often inaccurate) Hollywood representations.

Section 76-5-202(4) provides a single affirmative defense against Utah aggravated murder charges: that the defendant committed or attempted to commit murder “under a reasonable belief that the circumstances provided a legal justification or excuse for the conduct,” even though such justification didn’t truly exist.

However, that doesn’t mean defendants can simply claim ignorance and be found not guilty.  Whether or not the defendant’s “reasonable belief” was actually “reasonable” isn’t a matter of the defendant’s own opinion, but must be “determined from the viewpoint of a reasonable person under the then existing circumstances.”

If this affirmative defense is successful, the offense can be lessened by one level.  This has enormous implications for defendants, because while aggravated murder is potentially a capital felony, murder is not.  Therefore, a successful affirmative defense can mean avoiding the death sentence.

Additionally, the death penalty is not allowed against defendants who were younger than 18 at the time of alleged crime.  If the defendant was a minor, the crime will be categorized as a noncapital felony punishable by 25 years to life in prison.

If you or someone you love was arrested for homicide, you should seek experienced legal representation immediately.  Our firm’s attorneys have successfully prevented five clients from receiving the death penalty.  To set up a free and private legal consultation, call West Jordan homicide lawyer Darwin Overson at (801) 758-2287 today.