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Condemned killer Ron Lafferty competent, judge rules

Published January 9, 2014 7:40 pm

Courts • Death sentence challenge can now proceed.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A federal judge on Thursday found condemned killer Ron Lafferty mentally competent and able to participate in ongoing legal proceedings aimed at stopping his execution for the 1984 murder of his sister-in-law and niece.

U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson concluded that Lafferty, 71, is not suffering from a mental disease or defect that interferes with his ability to understand the nature of and consequences of the ongoing case.

Lafferty, Benson said, has "the ability to assist his counsel if he chooses to do so."

The case has been on hold since January 2010, when Lafferty's attorneys raised questions about his competency.

Since then, Benson noted, the "legal landscape" for competency determinations in appeals has changed. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that defendants do not have a statutory right to be competent during such proceedings, which focus on record reviews.

Lafferty's attorneys maintain their client is delusional and unable to assist them in his defense. As an example, they said in court filings that Lafferty believes he was tormented by the ghost of a trial judge's father, and that he and a former defense attorney were siblings several hundred years ago in England. The defense wanted Benson to send Lafferty to the Utah State Hospital for treatment aimed at restoring his mental health.

Questions about Lafferty's competency have been raised since his first trial in 1985 for the murders of his sister-in-law Brenda Wright Lafferty and 15-month-old niece.

He was convicted and given the death penalty in that trial, but the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals found the wrong standard was used to assess his mental competency and ordered that Lafferty be tried again. Lafferty was convicted and given death a second time in 1996.

Lafferty's attorneys said their client's delusions involve both his legal proceedings and his experiences with spirit beings. They assert Lafferty's delusions existed prior to when he attempted to hang himself in December 1984, an event that caused brain damage.

Benson held a two-day competency hearing in October, during which he heard differing views from psychologists about Lafferty's mental well being.

Three different psychologists provided evaluations of Lafferty, two of whom participated in the October hearing.

Two psychologists hired by the defense concluded that Lafferty is incompetent; one attributed that to a psychotic disorder caused by lack of oxygen when he tried to commit suicide, while the other said Lafferty suffers from schizophrenia and a psychotic disorder.

A third psychologist, who testified for the state, said Lafferty does not have any mental disease or defect that makes him incompetent, instead attributing his odd thoughts to narcissism, fundamentalist Mormon beliefs and an anti-government ideology.

Benson said he found the third psychologist's findings most persuasive.

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