“Only Fifteen Years for Murder?! That’s Outrageous!” No, Fifteen Years to Life: There is a Difference
By Ken K. Gourdin
A murderer who forced his victim to dig his own grave and made a video recording while he did so was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. See coverage of the sentence in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News here (last accessed May 28, 2019: https://www.deseretnews.com/article/900072629/utahn-who-took-egotistically-cruel-video-of-victim-digging-his-own-grave-sentenced-for-murder.html. The hue and cry among readers of coverage of the sentence in the News was shrill and loud. “Only fifteen years! That’s unconscionable!” I responded:
To everyone decrying the leniency of this sentence:
Other than the death penalty, the stiffest sentence possible for first degree aggravated murder is 15 years to life in prison. (In other words, 15 years is the minimum, and the actual sentence is likely to be far longer).
While I agree that this case may well have merited the death penalty, and while I have no first-hand knowledge of what took place leading up to this sentence being imposed, occasionally, prosecutors will take the death penalty off of the table in exchange for the accused revealing everything he knows and/or revealing the whereabouts of a victim’s remains.
And, sometimes, even imposing the death penalty leads to victims’ loved ones getting a raw deal, with a seemingly endless succession of appeal after appeal, with old wounds being reopened and fresh wounds being created with each successive appeal and no end in sight.
So as inadequate as this sentence might seem, perhaps it really is the best solution for all concerned.
An interlocutor asked me how I would feel if, in sixteen years, prosecutors were engaging in still more plea negotiations regarding the whereabouts of yet another victim’s remains. I replied:
You need to reread my comment. First, if he is at that high of a risk to reoffend, he will not have come even close to completing his sentence after fifteen (or sixteen) years. Second, I have no idea if, indeed, he made any kind of a deal with prosecutors for revealing his victim’s whereabouts or for providing other information. I merely raised it as a possibility. Third, while fifteen-to-life may not be fair, at least it spares the victim’s loved ones the prospect of being victimized repeatedly by seemingly-endless appeals. Fourth, how long he actually serves is at the discretion of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole: If you know someone among the victim’s family, by all means, encourage him to lobby for a life sentence (though I think the Board will take a long, hard look at this crime before even considering a release, no matter how much rehabilitation might occur). And sixth, if fifteen years minimum isn’t long enough, call your legislator: Judges aren’t simply pulling these numbers out of a hat.
Later, I added, “And, while I certainly don’t endorse murder, if one is going to murder someone, by all means, record it and plaster it all over the Internet. It’ll make the case that much easier to investigate and to prosecute.”