The practice has remained problematic ever since.
Otherwise, Ronnie Lee Gardner -- sentenced to die for the 1985 courthouse slaying of attorney Michael Burdell -- wouldn't have spent 25 years on Utah's death row awaiting his fate.
Most countries and 15 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have found the death penalty untenable and abandoned it.
Now, as the nation again turns an eye toward Utah and its preparations for Gardner's Friday execution by firing squad, capital punishment proponents insist death is the only just penalty for the worst crimes.
But for opponents, questions persist: Is the death penalty administered arbitrarily? Is justice served when inmates languish for decades on death row? Can states afford to spend the millions of dollars capital cases require? And does the death penalty deter crime and lead to a better society?
Is it fair?
The U.S. Supreme Court halted capital punishment in 1972, convinced the penalty had been arbitrarily applied in the case of Henry Furman, who shot a Georgia homeowner during a burglary. The same concern will end the practice again, opponents maintain.
They say one well-known Utah case -- that of Dan and Ron Lafferty -- highlights the uneven way the death sentence is applied.
The brothers were convicted of the July 24, 1984, homicides of Brenda Lafferty, their sister-in-law, and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, in American Fork. Ron Lafferty awaits execution; his brother is serving two life terms in prison.
The brothers, who believed themselves to be prophets, saw Brenda standing in the way of their evolving belief system and were convinced God had commanded the deaths.
They were tried separately. Unlike Ron, Dan represented himself at trial. Two jurors refused to give Dan the death penalty, although he claimed it was he who slit the victims' throats.
"The law is not very good at specifying who should live and who should die," argues Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor at University of California at Berkeley.
Zimring was among those who recently convinced the American Law Institute -- an association of about 4,000 lawyers, professors and judges -- to abandon its support of the death penalty based on arbitrary application.
The American Law Institute was the force that led the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976 to reinstate the death penalty in Gregg v. Georgia. The group established a legal framework of aggravating and mitigating factors to standardize the death penalty.
Without the backing of the professional organization, the death penalty has lost its "intellectual underpinnings," said Roger S. Clark, a law professor at Rutgers University.
"We have to compare crimes and criminals, and we just can't do it very well," he said. "The jury makes the call, but the criteria [upon which they make their decision] doesn't make sense."
In Utah, the law requires 12 jurors to go through a two-step process to hand down a death sentence. The jurors must first have no reasonable doubt that aggravating factors such as a defendant's criminal history outweigh mitigating factors such as a troubled childhood. Jurors must then be persuaded imposing death is "justified and appropriate."
Thomas Brunker, capital case coordinator for the Utah Attorney General's Office, says the criteria work, but admits the nature of the process means "you can't have 100 percent fairness in every case." Setting absolutes for jurors could prevent them from showing mercy, he said.
The two jurors who voted to spare Dan Lafferty were never interviewed about their decision. The jury foreman after trial chalked the verdict up to an emotional attachment that developed between a female juror and Lafferty.
Should it take so long?
In some cases, such as that of the mother and stepfather charged in the recent torture killing of 4-year-old Ethan Stacy, society demands execution, said Kent Scheidegger, director of Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Fund.
"There are some crimes for which any lesser penalty is not justice," Scheidegger said.
Although he contends there is no way to make capital punishment "completely consistent," Scheidegger said the system does "by and large only sentence the worst killers to death."
For capital punishment to be effective as a deterrent, Scheidegger said, states must streamline the appeals process. He pointed to Virginia, which limits the number of appeals in capital cases to an automatic appeal followed by a second review. An execution date is set immediately after the second review is denied, forcing inmates to turn the federal courts, according to the Office of the Virginia Attorney General.
Behind Texas, Virginia has executed more people since capital punishment was reinstated than any other state. It took seven years to execute the state's so-called "D.C. Sniper," John Allen Muhammad, believed to have killed up to 10 people in the 2002 Beltway shootings. Virginia's five-year average from sentencing to execution compares with a national average of 11 years, according to Northern Illinois University.
In Utah, legislation proposed by Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff to limit death penalty appeals met with opposition. A compromise measure passed last year allows judges to reject appeals on a procedural basis, such as missing a filing deadline, without assessing other arguments that often trigger more litigation.
But streamlining capital cases could be even more expensive because more attorneys and judges would be needed, cautioned Salt Lake City civil rights attorney Brian Barnard. The time it takes to execute someone can't be blamed on defense attorneys, he said.
Appeals on death-penalty cases are dealt with painstakingly, he said, and that takes time, given the finite resources of prosecutors and courts, as well as defense counsel.
"When society is imposing something that is irreversible, the judicial system says we must be careful because [death penalty] mistakes are irreversible."
And mistakes have been made. The Death Penalty Information Center points to the exoneration of 138 death-row inmates since 1973.
Like most death penalty proponents, Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor, would like the time between conviction and execution to be reduced. But otherwise, he contended, the death penalty works well in this country and is structured to be lenient, rather than barbaric.
"We could make the death penalty apply evenly, but if it's applied evenly, everyone who commits murder gets the death penalty," he said. "The sorting is done by the jury."
Does it improve society?
The last person executed in Utah was Joseph Mitchell Parsons, who was put to death in October 1999 for the 1987 murder of California resident Richard Ernest in Iron County.
Then-Iron County Attorney Scott Burns sought capital punishment because, he said, the crime was especially heinous: Parsons robbed Ernest and stabbed him more than a dozen times with a screwdriver.
Ernest had picked up the hitchhiking Parsons in California. The pair were near Parowan in southern Utah when Parsons attacked Ernest. After the killing, Parsons took the man's car and credit cards.
"My thought was to let a jury decide whether he deserved the death penalty," said Burns, now the director of the National District Attorneys Association. "It's a difficult thing. I carry it with me every single day."
Parsons tired of life on death row and halted his appeals. Unlike John Albert Taylor, who was executed by firing squad in January 1996, Parsons chose death by lethal injection.
Ernest's sister, Jana Salais, witnessed the execution but seemed not to be unburdened by it.
"It's justice, but it's not fair," she said after the execution. Parsons deserved a brutal death, Salais said. "[But] he just laid there and went to sleep."
Salt Lake City defense attorney Ken Brown, a death penalty opponent, argued capital punishment doesn't lead to a better society. Beyond that, Brown said it isn't fair to the victim's families, either -- particularly in an era where an execution, such as Gardner's, can be 20 years or more in coming.
"Prosecutors should tell the victim's families, 'Every time we deal with this case that wound will be reopened,' " he said. "Calmer minds need to be saying, 'Nothing we do can bring your [loved one] back. We can kill someone else, but at what cost?' "
That is borne out by the families of Gardner's victims, who say they relived the horrors of their loved-one's deaths every time Gardner has made headlines over the past quarter century. Gardner was appearing in court for slaying Melvyn Otterstrom when he fatally shot attorney Michael Burdell and wounded court bailiff Nick Kirk during an escape attempt.
But like the rest of the country, the families of Gardner's victims have mixed views on the death penalty.
Kirk's widow and daughters say they can't rest until Gardner has been executed. Donna Nu, Burdell's fiance, says she would do anything to stop Gardner's execution. Otterstrom's widow, Kathy Potter, and son, Jason Otterstrom, have not weighed in on Gardner's death sentence, although his son said Thursday he wants a final resolution in the case.
"I don't know which path should be followed. But our family needs peace," he said. "I ask that whatever decision is reached, that it be permanent."
And yet several speakers struck a note of hope:
"This is not the end of the movement," said Ralph Dellapiana, a defense attorney and one of the founders of Utahns for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a new group that sponsored the protest. "This is the beginning."
Kent Hart, also a defense attorney, introduced himself with a reference to his religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"The Mormon issue is kind of the elephant in the room," said Hart, who has met with eight of the nine men left on Utah's death
The rally was at the Capitol, Dellapiana said, to pressure lawmakers to end capital punishment, as many other states have done.
Rep. Brad King, D-Salt Lake City, said he will push his colleagues on the hill to revisit Utah's use of capital punishment.
The death penalty, he said, has many flaws: It's immoral, violates constitutional protections against cruel punishment, sometimes kills the innocent, is not a deterrent, unfairly targets the poor and ethnic minorities and is more expensive than life imprisonment.
But the real reason to abolish capital punishment, he said, is personal. "As a citizen of Utah I am involved in a very small way with killing another person ... and so are you," King said.
"What we are doing at the Point of the Mountain is cold-blooded and it's pre-meditated."
Several members of Gardner's extended
Candles were passed around, but few remained lit in the brisk wind.
Perhaps the most-poignant comments came from two people who were with condemned Utah men in the hours before their deaths: a legal studies professor from Utah Valley University and a former Catholic chaplain.
Sandra McGunigall-Smith studied death-row inmates at the prison for several years, and was with Joseph Parsons in the hours before he was executed in 1999.
If the state wants true and proportional punishment, she said, it should sentence killers to life without parole.
"The life-sentenced prisoners have no way to end their suffering," McGunigall-Smith added. "Prison itself becomes a cemetery, the cell a tomb."
Reyes G. Rodriguez, a Catholic chaplain at the prison for seven years, says he was with John Albert Taylor in the hours before he was shot by firing squad in 1996.
"A soon as they said, 'Fire,' I closed my eyes," Rodriguez said. "That was a very sad, sad event, to see a life just destroyed."
Those remaining at the end of the protest rally wandered into Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff's conference room, where he had a press conference minutes after learning Gardner was dead.
Nathan Walker, a West Jordan teenager, said he and his friend wanted to stay until the execution was over. "We don't think it's right for a human being to kill another human being," said Walker, who carried a sign with the words: "25 years can change a man! We are not God!!"
Jonathan Kendall, in Utah visiting family, said he cried when he learned Utah had carried out the execution. He wasn't happy to hear Shurtleff introduce his deputies, who had helped the state argue make the case that higher courts should reject Gardner's appeals.
"I felt some disgust that there was a sense of pride in this. I felt there should be a sense of shame," said Kendall, who teaches government in London.
it's about justice. It's not about justice at this point and time," said Kendall, who carried a sign urging prayers for the victims' and Gardner's families. " It's revenge." At a protest near the prison, Salt Lake City resident Kristin Powers arrived shortly after 11 p.m. with a handwritten sign reading, "Who would Jesus execute?"
Ron Belnap, a retired priest from All Saints Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City, said he "felt like this was a place for me to be."
"Murder is wrong, he said. "That is true regardless of whether you are a murderer or a government that takes the life of a murderer."
Dozens of Gardner's family members, mingling with the protesters, carried red and white balloons with messages written on them for the condemned killer. They planned to release the balloons at the time of his death.
Not far away were family members of Gardner's victims.
"I had an abusive upbringing. I know people who have done drugs, but we've never killed anyone," said Kearns resident Wayne Hunting while standing with family members of bailiff Nick Kirk, who was wounded in Gardner's 1985 escape attempt. "It's all about taking responsibility for our actions."
Earlier Thursday evening, prayers for Gardner, his victims, their families and his executioners were sent up by about 125 people who gathered at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Salt Lake City.
"Violence breeds violence," said the Rev. David Henry, interim pastor at First Baptist Church. He urged others to pray that the state soon ends capital punishment.
"It doesn't work," Henry said. "It's ineffective, and it's brutalizing all of us."
Michael Bulson, a deacon at St. Andrew Catholic Parish in Riverton and an attorney, said he learned a lesson from the father of a woman killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
"Hate and revenge will not bring about the healing that is needed," Bulson said.
Ogden resident Victoria Sethunya, a native of Lesotho, said she was stunned to learn that Utah still executes killers.
"This is a sacred place," she said. "I grew up thinking only God takes life."
Sandy resident Diana Mafi, a born-again Christian, said she attended the vigil because she cannot share her dismay over capital punishment with family or friends.
"I feel bad about the people who think they can feel better killing another person."
Matthew D. LaPlante and Sheena McFarland contributed to this story.