State death penalty discussion highlights Utah cases, issues

Wednesday , January 17, 2018 - 5:15 AM

JACOB SCHOLL, Standard-Examiner Staff

OGDEN — Utah’s death penalty continues to be a talking point across the state. 

Tuesday evening, Utah Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty hosted a panel event on Weber State’s campus that discussed the current state of Utah’s death penalty system. 

Many panelists cited issues like human error and moral dilemmas as reasons to abolish the death penalty.

Such as Jensie Anderson, a law professor at the University of Utah, who quoted Mohandas Gandhi: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

However, one common argument for eliminating the death penalty was more straightforward: It would cost the state less money.

Darcy Van Orden, executive director for the Utah Justice Coalition, cited a 2012 Utah legislative analyst who found that pursuing a death penalty case in Utah costs $1.6 million more than giving a defendant life in prison without parole. 

Ralph Dellapiana, director of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said the state spent over $30 million in the past 15 years seeking the death penalty in murder cases. In that time, the state succeeded only once.

The debate explored the larger issue of the death penalty’s value in Utah.


The panel discussion arrives at an interesting time in Northern Utah for several reasons.

Ogden couple Miller Costello and Brenda Emile were accused of killing their 3-year-old daughter, Angelina Costello, in July 2017. They have each been charged with one count of aggravated murder and are awaiting a February preliminary hearing. 

Both Costello and Emile are assigned “Rule 8” certified public defenders, which means prosecutors can potentially pursue the death penalty. 

RELATEDCostello, Emile could face death penalty in death of 3-year-old

Although cases involving the possibility of capital punishment are rare, the Costello and Emile case isn’t the only one Weber County is currently dealing with.

The county is still in the appeals process for the case of Douglas Lovell, who was convicted of first-degree murder in 2015 by a Weber County jury in the 1985 death of Joyce Yost, and subsequently sentenced him to death by lethal injection. 

Lovell is one of nine people on Utah’s death row, according to Utah Department of Corrections spokesperson Maria Peterson.

In September, Weber County commissioners contracted with a new attorney to defend Lovell in his death penalty appeal, and commissioners agreed to pay the lawyer up to $100,000 to represent him. 

RELATED: Weber County officials pick new defense lawyer in Lovell death penalty case

Two months later, Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, filed a bill for the 2018 legislative session that would allow the state to determine exactly how much it would cost the state for the prosecution and execution of a death penalty case and an expected 25 years of appeals. 

In 2012, a legislative analyst estimated a death penalty case costs $1.6 million more than giving someone life without parole. This is the same study that Van Orden cited in the panel at Weber State Tuesday night. 

Handy believes that estimate is low, and that amount could be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of cost to the state. 

The 2012 study was conducted after Handy read about another state doing away with their death penalty partly due to financial reasons, he said. When he asked other legislators and members of the UDOC about how much a death penalty case costs, they didn’t have an answer for him. 

“It doesn’t hurt us to look at the costs,” Handy said Tuesday. 

Handy first proposed the bill during the 2017 legislative session as HB 187. It passed a House vote but was not voted on in the Senate.

Handy said he hardly changed the language of the bill when he refiled it for the 2018 legislative session. The new bill, now known as HB 70, will be introduced sometime during the upcoming session, which starts on Jan. 22. 

RELATEDLayton lawmaker wants deeper look at Utah death penalty costs

Since proposing the bill, Handy says the feedback he has received has been mostly positive. He said you don’t have to be actively for or against the death penalty to be curious about the cost. 

“I think it’s an important discussion to be had,” Handy said. “People are interested in having this study done.” 


Utah has long been a part of the death penalty debate. 

After the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 following a four-year hiatus, the first recipient was Utah resident Gary Gilmore, convicted of killing two men in Orem and Provo in 1976. Gilmore was executed by firing squad on Jan. 17, 1977, at the Utah State Prison in Draper. 

Utah is the only state in the country that allows death row inmates to be executed by a firing squad. 

RELATEDOgden Hi-Fi murders still fresh memories for community, investigators

Two of the seven people who have been executed in Utah since 1972 have a direct connection to an infamous Ogden murder.

Pierre Selby and William Andrews were two of the three men involved in the notorious Ogden Hi-Fi murders of 1974. They were executed in 1987 and 1992 respectively and both were killed by lethal injection. 

The most recent execution in Utah occurred on June 18, 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by a firing squad. On April 2, 1985, Gardner was in court for killing a bartender when he shot and killed defense attorney Michael Burdell and wounded a bailiff, according to the UDOC.

Contact reporter Jacob Scholl at or follow him on Twitter @Jacob_Scholl.

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