ST. GEORGE — Sharon Wright Weeks didn’t know that Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, was an attorney when she asked to speak with him about repealing the death penalty in Utah in 2017. That may have worked in her favor.
“I’m just a barefoot girl from Idaho,” Weeks told St. George News. “But I’ve got personal experience with the death penalty, and all of its failings. If it were real, I may feel differently. But it’s a lie.”
Now, the unlikely pair – “a barefoot girl from Idaho” and a conservative Republican legislator who had twice voted against previous bids to abolish capital punishment in Utah – have joined forces to try and repeal the death penalty in the 2022 Utah legislative session.
With support from two groups who are often in opposition to one another, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Libertas Institute, as well as a growing number of state and municipal officials, Weeks and Snow said they feel like they’ve got a fighting chance.
Reliving the pain
Weeks lived through a horrific ordeal decades earlier. In 1984, Weeks’ 24-year-old sister, Brenda Lafferty, and her 15-month-old niece, Erica, were brutally murdered in American Fork, Utah.
The men who killed them, Ron and Dan Lafferty, were the brothers of Brenda’s husband.
The following morning, Weeks said that her mother came down to the basement in their family home to tell her what had happened.
“I felt like I was going to cry when I heard my dad kind of … scream and cry at once,” Weeks said. “It was excruciatingly painful.”
“When you’re a witness to that kind of pain, you feel it, too,” she continued, “It’s in you forever.”
Weeks said she relived that pain throughout the trial that followed. But she felt a sense of relief when Dan Lafferty received two consecutive life sentences, and Ron Lafferty was sentenced to death. He chose to die at the hands of a firing squad before Utah changed the law to offer the option only if lethal injection drugs weren’t available.
“Our family thought that justice had been served,” she said. “But that didn’t happen.”
Instead, in 1991, Ron Lafferty’s verdict was overturned by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. That was the beginning of a 35-year battle to see justice served, as Lafferty was retried. He appealed numerous times, claiming that he wasn’t competent to stand trial.
“Which was really smart on his part,” Weeks said. “If he said he killed my sister and niece because he was angry, that’s one thing. But if he received a revelation from God … who’s going to argue that he’s sane?”
Since the 1985 conviction, Weeks said that she’s felt shackled to “them” – the term Weeks uses to refer to the Lafferty brothers – while waiting for Ron Lafferty to be executed by the state of Utah. She said she hasn’t seen the gruesome evidence, but the two juries who convicted Lafferty had, and she feels deeply for them.
“Every time he appealed, the media dragged out the details of my sister’s murder,” Weeks said. “And every time that happens, I have to live through it – the murders, my family’s pain – again.”
Lafferty died in prison of natural causes in 2019, two years after Weeks shared her story with Snow. Weeks said that she’s no longer doing this for herself but for others.
“The death penalty is a lie,” Weeks said. “I don’t think the state does it on purpose. Utah’s post-conviction lawyers are among the most competent people on the planet. But if they can’t get it done, nobody can.”
In which case, Weeks said, the system is broken.
“And it needs to be replaced with something that works,” she added.
Who gets to do God’s work?
Rep. Snow told St. George News that he was moved by Weeks’ story.
“I’d never thought about that side of the story,” he said.
As he looked into how many people were on death row, and the number of years that they’d spent there waiting to be executed, Snow said that he realized that something had gone awry. He became even more suspicious when he learned that there was an increasing number of inmates on death row who were being exonerated.
“That’s when my thinking on the subject began to change,” he said. “The promise of justice is made in good faith, but it was clearly failing in some cases.”
After doing more research, Snow said he learned that 18 people had been exonerated in Utah, including one for murder. The idea that someone could sit on death row for an indefinite amount of time, and that some were executed despite being innocent, was deeply troubling to Snow.
“In some cases, we ask juries to impose the death sentence upon people,” he said. “But sometimes there’s insufficient evidence. Sometimes there’s misconduct on the behalf of prosecutors or police.”
That a citizen can be deprived of the highest right society bestows upon its citizenry, the right of life, in such uncertain circumstances, Snow said, is “unacceptable.”
“Whether in the womb or in the world, I’m pro-life,” he said. “I don’t think we have the right to decide another person’s life in such imperfect circumstances. Only God gets to do that.”
Having been so moved by Weeks’ story, Snow is the chief sponsor of the bill that will go before the Utah House of representatives come Jan. 2022. Though he voted against the previous two bids to repeal the death penalty in Utah, Snow said he believes fully in this bill.
“Consider the difference in how Dan Lafferty’s life sentences and Ron Lafferty’s death sentence affected Sharon,” Snow said. “Dan’s sentence was much less damaging for Sharon and her family. He went to prison for the rest of his life, and quietly disappeared.”
“On the other hand,” Snow continued, “Ron’s appeals and trials were traumatic for Sharon and her family in myriad ways … for decades.”
Utah fits the profile
Robert Dunham is the executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, a national nonprofit organization serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment.
Dunham said that he was watching closely when Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt commuted Julius Jones’s death sentence on Thursday. Jones was arrested in 1999, when he was just 19, for the murder of Oklahoma City businessman Paul Howell. Jones maintained all along that he was innocent.
Dunham was also keen to read the Gallup Poll released the same day, which showed a decline in nationwide support for the death penalty.
“It also showed that the number of conservatives who no longer support capital punishment is increasing,” Dunham said. “The poll shows that 27% of conservatives are now against capital punishment. That’s a significant shift in support.”
One of the reasons for this shift, Dunham said, is that Americans are relatively uninformed about the death penalty. “The more they learn,” he said, “the more they are against it. And this can inform policy decisions in various ways.”
The death penalty may not make sense fiscally, Dunham said, because statistically speaking, inmates are more likely to die while on death row than to be executed. For instance, there are currently seven men on death row in Utah. Collectively, they’ve served more than 200 years, costing taxpayers millions. That number increases exponentially as appeals processes drag on, and the state pays costs associated with the trial, prosecution and incarceration.
According to a 2017 study facilitated by Torin McFarland, each death penalty inmate costs approximately $1.12 million (2015 USD) more than a general population inmate.
In regard to public safety, Dunham said that murder rates hold steady in states that have the death penalty. Those states that abolished the death penalty did not see increases in the murder rate.
“If the death penalty was a deterrent, we would see those rates trend upward, and above the national average,” Dunham said.
More conservative and moderate liberal legislators are moving away from the death penalty,” Dunham added, “because it re-traumatizes the families of the victims.”
In Weeks’ case, she said she was shackled to Ron Lafferty for 35 years, as he went through two trials and a number of appeals.
“By the time it reached the appellate, the trial was no longer about the murder,” Dunham said. “It was about Lafferty’s mental state. That can feel very demeaning to victims’ families. Which takes a severe toll on their mental health.”
“They’re reliving these crimes. They’re hanging on to anger, which fuels a need for vengeance. So, it’s bad for our emotional health as these cases drag on for years and decades.”
The reason these cases drag on, more often than not, is the appeals process. Exonerations can take decades. The primary cause, Dunham said, is police and prosecutorial misconduct.
“States are in no hurry to reveal the truth in those cases,” Dunham said.
“I can’t say it will happen,” Dunham said, “but Utah definitely fits the profile of states that have turned the corner on the death penalty.”
In addition to prohibiting the state from seeking the death penalty for aggravated murder committed after May 4, 2022, the current draft of the bill includes a possible sentence of 45 years to life for aggravated murder.
Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton will sponsor the bill in the Senate, where in 2016 a bid to repeal the death penalty – designated SB-189 – was approved by a vote of 15-13. It ultimately failed in the House.
Utah County Attorney David Leavitt announced in September that he will no longer seek the death penalty, according to a report by The Salt Lake Tribune. Likewise, Utah County Commissioners voted 2-1 in October to pass a resolution urging state lawmakers to do away with the death penalty.
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