An evidentiary hearing set for Friday on the mental competency of death-row inmate Ron Lafferty will be open to the public after all.
U.S. District Judge Dee Benson decided to open the proceeding after listening to testimony from two experts on Thursday and concluding the discussion did not stray into privileged attorney/client areas — the concern that Benson said initially led him to close the hearing.
“I was satisfied today we weren’t getting into forbidden territory,” Benson said.
On Thursday, Benson heard testimony from Michael First, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, who was hired by Lafferty’s attorneys to evaluate their client. Noel C. Gardner, a Utah psychiatrist and adjunct professor at the University of Utah, hired by the state to evaluate Lafferty, also testified.
Attorneys for Lafferty, 71, say their client has paranoid schizophrenia and is unable to assist in a federal habeas proceeding to stay his execution. Lafferty has exhausted his appeals in state court.
Thomas Brunker, an assistant Utah attorney general, argues Lafferty’s current mental health is immaterial since federal appeals are a review of the state trial record — a position backed by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a defendant does not need to be competent for such “backward-looking” reviews to proceed.
The two-day hearing, initially set in April, had been listed on the federal court docket as an open proceeding until Monday, when it was listed as sealed. A media coalition led by The Salt Lake Tribune filed a motion Wednesday objecting to the closure.
The coalition, represented by attorneys Jeff Hunt and David Reymann, argued there has been no showing of a government or fair trial interest that would be jeopardized by opening the hearing. Previous hearings in state court involving Lafferty’s competence have been open, as have competency hearings for other high-profile defendants in federal court.
In an order Wednesday, Benson said the hearing was inadvertently not listed as sealed due to “clerical error” and that the media effort to open it on the eve of the hearing was “untimely” given that competency proceedings in the case had been sealed for nearly four years.
Benson also rejected the coalition’s request that more than 40 documents filed in the case be unsealed but said the media group could continue to challenge that decision.
Lafferty: God told me to kill woman, child
Nearly three decades ago, Ron Lafferty claimed to have received a revelation from God ordering the killings of his sister-in-law Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica. The two were murdered in 1984 at their home in American Fork.
Lafferty’s brother Dan, 65, received a sentence of life without parole for his role in the murders.
Ron Lafferty was sentenced to death in 1985. A federal appeals court overturned that conviction in 1991 after finding the wrong standard was used to assess Lafferty’s mental competency.
After again being found competent, a new trial took place in 1996. Lafferty was convicted and given a death sentence for a second time.