An attorney for death row inmate Taberon Dave Honie argued Thursday before the Utah Supreme Court that a trial judge erred by rejecting a request for funds to investigate whether Honie’s trial attorney adequately represented him in connection with the vicious beating and killing of his ex-girlfriend’s mother.
Therese M. Day, an Arizona public defender, said having more complete information about Honie’s background could have been used to provide a better defense during his trial and, at sentencing, might have spared him the death penalty.
Honie was sentenced to death in 1999 after a jury convicted him of one count of aggravated murder for killing Claudia Benn, 49, a Paiute substance abuse counselor, on July 9, 1998.
She was bitten, beaten, stabbed four times in the throat, sexually assaulted and mutilated. A neighbor called police after hearing what sounded like a gun shot but was likely glass breaking as Honie, who was intoxicated on alcohol and marijuana, smashed a patio door. Police arrived at the home as Honie walked outside, covered in blood. According to court documents, he voluntarily told police, “I stabbed her. I killed her with a knife.”
Officers found three of Benn’s granddaughters, at least one of whom presumably witnessed the attack, inside the home. One child was covered in blood.
In previous appeals, Honie argued his conviction and sentence should be tossed because of a racially insensitive comment made by a prosecutor at trial, lack of proof Benn was alive when she was sexually assaulted — the aggravating factor that led to the capital murder charge — and that Utah’s death penalty is unconstitutional. Those appeals failed.
But in 2005 a trial court judge agreed with Honie’s argument that trial attorney Stephen McCaughey failed to thoroughly investigate his family, social and psychological background and his drug and alcohol dependency. That information might have resulted in a different penalty, 5th District Court Judge Michael Westfall said in his ruling. But Westfall later refused to provide additional funds for Honie to use to develop those claims, according to court documents. In subsequent rulings Westfall upheld the sentence and his prior decisions, which led to the latest appeal.
Day argued that McCaughey fell short in his representation because he relied on psychologist Nancy Cohn as a mental health expert and mitigation expert, and Cohn conducted only a superficial investigation into Honie’s background and mitigating factors that might have resulted in a different sentencing outcome. According to a court document, Cohn’s assessment found no evidence of brain damage, post traumatic stress disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome or depression and that Honie had an average IQ. Cohn also found no mental or physical problems related to Honie’s drug and alcohol abuse.
Day said Cohn’s conclusions were based on a cursory, one-day meeting with Honie’s family and an encounter with his mother that lasted “moments.” McCaughey should have done more to direct the investigation into his client’s childhood traumas and background, she said, expanding on such information as his mother’s possible alcohol use during pregnancy and that Honie likely suffered brain damage after falling 30 feet to 50 feet off a cliff.
The justices challenged Day’s arguments about how much investigation was adequate and the ability of attorneys to rely on experts’ findings.
“I thought case law was pretty clear that counsel are allowed to rely on testimony of expert witnesses,” Justice Thomas Lee said. “Lawyers don’t have to become experts themselves.”
Lee also said it was a “big leap” in his mind to claim Honie’s defense attorney did nothing simply because he “charged” Cohn with conducting Honie’s mental health evaluation.
Assistant Utah Attorney General Thomas Brunker noted that during sentencing Honie’s mother, father, brother, two maternal aunts, a girlfriend, former counselor and forensic psychologist all testified about his “unfortunate” past, substance abuse and lack of resources to get help.
Brunker said what Westfall found was that there was a fact issue — not that the defense attorney failed to do his duty — and that later proceedings filled in that informational gap, which resulted in a summary judgment ruling in its favor.