Death Penalty for Human Trafficking Narrowly Passes House Committee

At a point in time where the death penalty seems to be largely falling out of vogue, things seem to be moving in the opposite direction here in the Beehive State.

In 2015, Representative Paul Ray (Republican – Clearfield) successfully ran a bill that brought back the firing squad as an option in case the necessary substances for a lethal injection are unavailable. Last year, he proposed HB 136 – Human Trafficking Amendments to expand the death penalty to include homicides that occur in the course of human trafficking. An earlier version focused solely on cases involving children, but Ray later substituted it to include adults as well. The bill was not successful.

Ray is pushing the issue again, having proposed HB 176 – Human Trafficking Amendments. The bill provides that a homicide caused in the commission of human trafficking, human trafficking of a child, or aggravated human trafficking is a capital offense with the death penalty becoming a possible sentencing option for the courts.

Ray’s asserted that it could be helpful for prosecutors to use the threat of death to make suspects more cooperative. Ralph Dellapiana, who chairs the Capital Case Committee of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, pointed out the ethically challenging nature of such a situation. “It’s unethical for prosecutors to make that sort of a threat, ‘Look, I’ve got the death penalty granting over your head so you better cooperate.’ The Department of Justice prohibits that sort of conduct. Utah Supreme Court has found that to be so impermissible that they’ve reversed convictions based on it as a coercive technique,” said Dellapaina.

“The threat of death is so ominous and so serious that I would hate to see a DA use the death penalty in that way,” said Representative Kelly Miles (Republican – South Ogden). “I’m not sure that brings justice.”

Anna Thomas, strategic communications manager at the ACLU of Utah, said the threat of death is not an effective deterrent to crime and that Ray’s bill does nothing to help actual victims of human trafficking. “Victims need support and services and protection. Other legislators have worked to pass laws that do actually shield human trafficking victims from prosecution and also persecution and discrimination. This law is not one of those,” said Thomas.

Ray said other states may not have a specific law linking human trafficking and the death penalty, but it’s already covered by their death penalty clauses. “We are still very careful in the state of Utah on how we do the death penalty and what we actually expend our resources for. These are meant for monsters. When you’re talking about child sexual smuggling that results in a death of a child, to me that’s you take them out back and you take care of it right now. But there’s obviously, you have things we have to do constitutionally to abide by the law and we do that,” said Ray. “This really covers a gray area that I think’s important that we have this in, to allow an extra arrow in the quiver of our DA’s. We’re not making anybody do this, but we’re allowing them to have an additional tool when it comes to dealing with human trafficking because it is out of control. It is completely out of control, and there has to be justice. This brings justice into the equation.”

The House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee narrowly passed out the bill on a 6-5 vote. It now heads to the full House for its consideration.

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