Pro-firing squad lawmaker wants to shorten death-row appeals

FILE - This June 18, 2010, file photo shows the firing squad execution chamber at the Utah State Prison, in Draper, Utah. A new state report finds that each death row inmate in Utah costs $1.66 million more in taxpayer money than one sentenced to life in prison without parole. State lawmakers weighed the costs of capital punishment at a hearing that came after the legislature both brought back the firing squad and seriously considered eliminating death sentences altogether. (Trent Nelson/Salt Lake Tribune via AP, Pool, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah state lawmaker who led the push to bring back the firing squad said Wednesday he wants to shorten the appeals process for death-row inmates.

Republican Rep. Paul Ray of Clearfield said he’d like to see the time from sentence to execution cut from about 30 years to 15 or less and is planning to propose a bill next year.

“You have to be a monster to get on death row in Utah,” he said, though he acknowledged much of the appeals process is outside of state control in federal court.

Critics contend the lengthy, painstaking process helps ensure justice is done and streamlining it could mean important constitutional issues never come to light.

“Given how long it takes to prove innocence, shorter appeals pose a serious threat of executing the innocent,” said Anna Brower with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah in a statement.

Utah spends about $1.66 million more on each death row inmate than it spends on a convict serving life in prison without parole, according to a new state report.

Some lawmakers sharply questioned whether the state could really save that much money if they did away with capital punishment, pointing to costs like care for elderly inmates.

“It is fair to say you don’t know what, if any, savings the state would realize by eliminating the death penalty?” Republican Sen. Todd Weiler of Woods Cross asked the state analyst who prepared the report. He demurred when asked questions like whether the attorney general could lower staffing if the state did away with capital punishment.

The Wednesday hearing came after lawmakers who approved bringing back the firing squad as a backup execution method in 2015 also seriously considered eliminating the death penalty this year.

Defense attorney Richard Mauro said a life-without-parole case is a “very large savings” over a death penalty case. Defendants don’t automatically get a publicly funded lawyer when the death penalty is off the table, and hefty costs like expert witnesses can be eliminated.

But those in favor of capital punishment say that cost isn’t the only factor.

“We’re not going to throw out the death penalty to save money,” said Ray, who sponsored the measure that made the firing squad the backup execution method when lethal injection drugs aren’t available — a scenario that’s looking more likely, he said.

The family of the victims of one Utah death-row inmate said they would be glad to see the appeals process shortened.

Linae Tiede Coats was kidnapped by two men who shot her mother and grandmother 26 years ago. One of those men, Von Lester Taylor, was convicted and sentenced to death.

“To me, the murderer that Von Taylor is, he doesn’t need to be alive,” she said. “It’s absurd to me we’re even at this point.”

Taylor is appealing his sentence, arguing in part that his trial lawyer pushed him to plead guilty with little guidance or information. A co-defendant is serving life within parole.

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