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PROVO — Prosecutors in Utah County will seek the death penalty for the man charged with killing a young couple and dumping their bodies in an abandoned mine shaft in 2017.
Utah County Attorney David Leavitt announced the decision at a Wednesday news conference in Provo, where he said a jury will ultimately decide the fate of Jerrod William Baum.
"My decision is to allow the death penalty to be considered in this case," Leavitt said as family members of the slain Riley Powell, 18, and Brelynne "Breezy" Otteson, 17, listened. "It is my role to give the people the option."
The teens' family members have called for the death penalty if Baum is convicted.
Baum, 42, faces two counts of aggravated murder, a first-degree felony, in the deaths of the teens.
"if pulling a trigger or injecting a needle would bring Breezy and Riley back, I would do so personally," Leavitt said. His decision is based not just on pursuing justice for the teens but also protecting the public, he told reporters and others.
Leavitt said he did not make the announcement in order to secure a plea deal that would send Baum to prison for life with no possibility of parole, and called such a tack "morally repugnant" and a misuse of plea bargains. When pressed to say whether he would no longer pursue the death penalty if Baum were to admit to the charges, Leavitt declined to give a definitive answer.
"I'm not going to engage in plea negotiations in the middle of a press conference," he said. "I will say that I am not charging the death penalty in order to get him to plead guilty."
During his press conference, Leavitt also touched on reforms his office is pursuing, saying the criminal justice system is "completely out of balance" and most cases are resolved in plea deals instead of trials, a trend he believes grants prosecutors too much power.
Leavitt said he acknowledges the cost of Baum's defense will top $1 million and that Baum may never be executed, but said the case is deserving of the county's resources. He noted the last person to receive a death sentence in Utah County was Ron Lafferty, convicted in the slayings of his sister-in-law Brenda Lafferty and her baby in 1984.
Otteson's aunt, Amanda Hunt, said the potential for a death sentence for Baum has been "the one thing we were sure of" and is part of a continued fight for the teens that began with search parties combing the desert near Eureka in Juab County.
"We are in it for the long haul" through rounds of possible appeals, Hunt said.
At a preliminary hearing in March, Baum's former girlfriend, Morgan Henderson, testified in vivid detail how he became enraged to find the teens at his home on Dec. 30, 2017, then brought her and the couple to an abandoned mine shaft, where he slit the teens' throats and discarded their bodies. Almost three months later, crews found their bodies.
Henderson agreed to testify against Baum in exchange for resolving charges that she lied to investigators.
Baum, who is from the tiny central Utah town of Mammoth, faces another six felony charges tied to the young couple's disappearance and death. He has pleaded not guilty to each criminal count.
Leavitt emphasized his county is on the hook to prosecute and to fund Baum's defense even though the case bares little connection to Utah County, except for the location of the crime, roughly a mile from the Juab County border.
Baum is due back in court Aug. 12.
Leavitt announced the prosecutors' decision during a press conference Wednesday morning. Watch the full press conference in the video below.