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Utah is set to execute its first death row inmate since 2010 this summer

A district judge ruled Monday that there was no legal basis to continue to stay the death sentence against 48-year-old Taberon Honie. Authorities are now planning an execution this summer.

Honie has been on death row for 25 years.

In his courtroom in Cedar City on Monday, Judge Jeffrey C. Wilcox of the 5th District listened for more than an hour to arguments from lawyers both against and for lifting the stay of execution. Ultimately, he sided with prosecutors and signed the execution warrant.

“There is no legal basis for opposing the death sentence,” Wilcox said. “The law requires me to sign both the warrant and an order for the warrant to be served.”

The execution is scheduled for August 8. Honie is to be killed by lethal injection at the Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City.

Honie's defense attorney Eric Zuckerman said Monday he would appeal the decision, which came one business day after the state “announced a new, experimental lethal injection combination” of ketamine, fentanyl and potassium chloride.

He said the state has not provided any information about these drugs, including the dosage that would be given to Honie. In addition, authorities have no plans to update the state's execution protocols to include these new drugs. “This makes this state the only one that can carry out executions without precise written procedures.”

“Mr. Honie's execution should not proceed until the Utah courts have had a reasonable opportunity to consider and decide the constitutional challenge to these unprecedented proceedings,” he said.

A representative for the attorney general's office did not respond to the Salt Lake Tribune's request for comment Monday afternoon.

The state Department of Corrections announced Friday that it would use a drug cocktail of ketamine, fentanyl and potassium chloride “on the recommendation of medical professionals,” a press release said.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, fentanyl has been used in executions in Nebraska, but no state has used ketamine.

The death of Claudia Benn

Honie was found guilty and convicted in 1999 of the murder of 49-year-old Claudia Benn, a drug counselor and mother of his ex-girlfriend, with whom he had a daughter.

On July 9, 1998, Honie called his ex-girlfriend and demanded that she visit him. He threatened to kill her family if she refused. Later that evening, just before midnight, Honie took a taxi to Benn's house, where she was babysitting her three grandchildren. He broke down the door with a rock and hit, bit, stabbed and sexually abused Benn, court documents say.

Police arrived after a neighbor called to report a gunshot. Honie, who was drunk, went outside covered in blood and told police officers, “I stabbed her. I killed her with a knife.”

Officers found Benn's three grandchildren in the house. According to documents, one child was covered in blood.

Honie has made several unsuccessful attempts to appeal the verdict, arguing, among other things, that a better defense could have saved him from the death penalty, that a prosecutor made a racist remark during the trial, that it was unclear whether Benn was alive at the time of the sexual assault (the aggravating circumstance that led to the death penalty), and that the death penalty is unconstitutional.

Execution planned

The purpose of Monday's hearing was to determine whether there are legal grounds to prevent Honie's stay of execution from being lifted.

Daniel Boyer, a prosecutor in the attorney general's office, argued there was no legal reason not to comply with the sentencing.

Under Utah law, judges have limited, procedural authority to decide whether or not to sign an execution warrant, he said. Honie has exhausted all appeals against his conviction and sentence, and therefore, Boyer said, Wilcox is legally obligated to sign the execution warrant.

Zuckerman argued that an extraordinary motion he filed with the Utah Supreme Court last week should be considered grounds under Utah law to uphold the stay of execution. In that motion, he argued that Utah's methods of execution are unconstitutional and unknown and must be reviewed in court before Honie's execution.

He has also appealed the dismissal of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Honie and death row inmates Ralph Menzies, Troy Kell, Douglas Carter and Michael Archuleta challenging the constitutionality of Utah's two methods of execution, lethal injection and firing squad. That appeal is pending.

While Boyer acknowledged that Honie still has pending death penalty-related cases, he said none of them met the minimum requirements set out in Utah law for a continued stay of a death penalty case. Wilcox in his ruling cited pending appeals, post-conviction relief petitions, or habeas corpus (or wrongful imprisonment) proceedings as qualifying conditions.

Zuckerman explained to Wilcox that a warrant signed on Monday would be flawed because Honie had not had time to make an informed decision about the method of execution.

Prosecutors disagreed, saying Honie had already chosen lethal injection by default when he refused to choose at his 1999 sentencing and did not need any more time (though they said at Monday's hearing they would let him choose the method). But Zuckerman countered that the drugs used in the 1999 lethal injection were no longer the same.

“This would invalidate any decisions he may have made at the time of sentencing,” Zuckerman said.

Zuckerman requested that if Wilcox did not find his arguments for an automatic stay convincing, the judge should give his team three more months to review the execution methods before scheduling another hearing on the execution order.

Wilcox was not convinced and scheduled the execution 59 days after the hearing on Monday.

When asked about Honie's preferred method, Zuckerman said, “Mr. Honie does not have enough information to make an informed decision.” Wilcox then decided that the death sentence would be carried out by lethal injection.

Transparency about the process

Before the lawyers argued about the execution order on Monday, they first clashed over the outcome of the defense's subpoena for execution records. The ministry handed over many of those documents on Friday.

“So you answered and said what substances are involved. Do you need more?” Wilcox asked. “Do you think your client is entitled to more?”

Zuckerman did so, saying his client had a right to know the dosage of the drugs, the order of the injections and other information about the doctor who authorized their use. He said the doctor, a “licensed pharmacist in the United States,” was not legally authorized in Utah to prescribe such drugs.

He also argued that correctional officials should update execution records to provide specific information about the new drugs.

“There is not a single state in this country that has ever carried out an execution without an updated protocol detailing the drugs that are to be used,” he said. “Yet this appears to be the case. [Department of Corrections’] to plan.”

Bokovoy, the agency's attorney, argued that updating the protocols – which detail the number of syringes, their contents and the order in which they are used – is not necessary because Utah state law allows lethal injections to be administered with “a lethal amount of sodium thiopental or another substance of equal or greater potency sufficient to cause death.”

“This is what we have here,” Bokovoy said. “There is no reason to update it, it is not necessary.”

Wilcox ordered that Zuckerman limit the time frame for his information request and that corrections officials release all relevant documents within the next two weeks – on a rolling basis to avoid “document overload.”

The Attorney General's office also sought an execution warrant for Ralph Menzies this year. However, that process stalled after Zuckerman, who is also Menzies's lawyer, argued that the death row inmate suffers from dementia and cannot be executed because he is not sane. An evidentiary hearing on Menzies' mental state is scheduled for November.

In Utah, the last execution of a prisoner took place in 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner was killed by firing squad.

Anna Harden

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