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Utah inmate says he committed 1982 murder scrutinized by FBI

Published April 22, 2012 6:02 pm

Crime • FBI's original lab work was questionable, but Kelly admits killing woman in 1982.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Draper •In the 1982 murder of Karla Taylor, the science may have been shoddy, but the right man was convicted.

A Washington Post investigation published last week unearthed problems with the Taylor murder investigation and the FBI crime lab technician who testified at the Salt Lake City trial of the suspect, Ronald L. Kelly. The technician may have been wrong about a hair found on Taylor's body, according to federal investigators.

But in an interview Thursday, Kelly admitted to murdering the 19-year-old Taylor.

"It just happened to be a part of my life where I was weak," Kelly said inside a conference room at the Utah State Prison where he is serving a life sentence.

After a hearing in 2008, the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole decided Kelly will never be released.

The Post investigation focused on the work of a U.S. Department of Justice task force. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the task force examined the vaunted FBI crime lab and found technicians there were using methods that were unscientific and reaching conclusions that could not be verified and were sometimes wrong.

One of the technicians who has drawn scrutiny was FBI Special Agent Michael P. Malone, who retired in 1999. A year before Kelly's trial, Malone testified as an expert in the trial of a man accused of raping and killing a Georgetown University student. Malone said the defendant's hair was found on the student's body. The defendant was convicted, but a judge later determined Malone lied on the witness stand. The defendant was exonerated after 28 years in prison.

The Post investigation listed murder cases in Texas, Maryland, Alaska and the Taylor murder in Salt Lake City in which Malone's work also has been questioned.

On Feb. 10, 1982, Salt Lake City police received a report of a woman screaming inside an apartment at 604 S. 500 East. When officers arrived, Taylor was dead inside. She had been stabbed multiple times and medical examiners found evidence she had been sexually assaulted. Her two daughters, ages 2½ years and 5 months, were in the next room.

Detective Ken Farnsworth found footprints in the snow. Farnswoth followed the prints, made by a running shoe, 4½ blocks east to 637 Brixen Court.

There, Farnsworth knocked on the door. Kelly, then 23 years old, answered the door and invited Farnsworth inside. Kelly denied having anything to do with the murder, but Farnsworth saw a ski jacket and gloves that matched a description given by witnesses who saw a man running from Taylor's building.

Kelly went to the police station. During 2½ hours of questioning from then Salt Lake City police Detective Steve Chapman — who today is the chief of police in Sandy — Kelly's story evolved. He went from saying he had never been to Taylor's apartment, to saying he went to her door but did not enter to saying he went to visit a friend who lived across the hall but that friend wasn't home. Kelly, however, denied killing and sexually assaulting Taylor.

The next day, Kelly was charged with capital homicide in state court. Kelly pleaded not guilty and asked for a bench trial.

In Kelly's trial in 1983, Malone testified that a pubic hair found on Taylor's buttocks was a match to Kelly in 20 "separate and distinguishable points," according to a Tribune article about the trial. Prosecutors also presented their circumstantial evidence.

Judge Peter F. Leary found Kelly guilty. The judge sentenced Kelly to life in prison.

After the conviction, Kelly acknowledged he murdered Taylor. In Thursday's Tribune interview, he said he and Taylor had mutual friends and he went to her apartment after a night of drinking.

He didn't specify why he killed Taylor but said, "She rejected me."

Kelly on Thursday denied raping Taylor but admitted to putting an object in her vagina. He did not explain the contradiction.

The FBI in 2002 reviewed Malone's lab work in the case. Documents obtained by the Post shows a task force was unable to determine whether Malone used approved scientific methods and protocols. The review also found Malone did not properly document the results.

The Post quoted Malone, 66, as saying he used the best science available at the time. "We did the best we could with what we had," he said.

Kelly on Thursday said he recalls the FBI sending him some kind of notification about the laboratory concerns in 2004 and he forwarded it to an attorney.

Despite his admission of murder, Kelly said the problem with the hair evidence matters. He was charged with capital homicide because evidence showed the murder happened during a rape, and the pubic hair Malone examined was a piece of that evidence and hurt Kelly when he asked his lawyers to negotiate with prosecutors for a lesser charge.

"I was trying to make sure I didn't get charged with anything but a murder," Kelly said.

The plea negotiations failed, Kelly said, and the case went to trial.

Kelly has earned bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology while in prison and has raised money for charities. His work inside the prison earned him compliments from the officer who presided over his parole hearing in 2008.

But Taylor's family asked for Kelly to remain in prison. Taylor's sister, Robin Shepherd spoke at the hearing and talked of watching her nieces grow up without their mother.

"And now there are grandchildren who will never know their grandmother," Shepherd said at the hearing.

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle