A Utah death row inmate wants to use the words of a dying man to help prove the LDS Church meddled in his trial

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune A new murder trial begins for Douglas Anderson Lovell, 57, center, charged with aggravated murder for allegedly kidnapping and killing 39-year-old Joyce Yost in 1985 to keep her from testifying against him in a rape case. Lovell who appeared in 2nd District Court, in Ogden on Monday, March, 16, 2015, is seen facing into the courtroom gallery where the jury was being selected for his trial.

He called him charitable and inspirational, someone who was a “better man than many walking outside the prison.”

Chuck Thompson, a onetime Latter-day Saint bishop, penned these words of praise about death row inmate Douglas Lovell, according to the inmate’s attorney, as part of a book Thompson wrote while battling terminal cancer.

Lovell’s attorneys want that book admitted into court to help prove The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints meddled in his 2015 trial.

Four years ago, a jury sentenced Douglas Lovell to be executed for killing 39-year-old Joyce Yost in 1985. Lovell is appealing the decision, arguing the church affected the outcome by telling his former religious leaders to either not testify or limit what they said on the stand.

Lovell’s attorneys had planned to have a handful of former bishops and others who worked at the prison testify about the positive interactions they had with Lovell. They did not dispute that Lovell killed Yost but instead asked jurors to spare him the death penalty. His was a life worth saving, they said, that he had been a model prisoner for three decades who donated most of the meager money he earned at the prison to charity.

But Lovell wrote in an affidavit that on the eve of his trial, another former mentor of his came to him in tears, asking him not to call him as a character witness. The man told Lovell that a “member above him” in the church told him he could not testify.

Four other bishops and a woman serving a Latter-day Saint mission at the time of the trial also reported they were told to either not testify or give only short answers, so it would not appear they were representing the church. The LDS Church has a neutral stance on the death penalty.

One of those bishops was Thompson. He testified only briefly, telling jurors he had a standing appointment with Lovell, whom he characterized as a model prisoner. As did many other church members called to testify, he told the jury he was there “under order of subpoena.”

But Thompson wrote an email to another witness after the trial, according to court filings, and said he had to walk a “delicate tightrope” as he testified while being monitored by attorneys hired by the church.

He wanted to help Lovell, he wrote, without running afoul of his religious leaders and their wishes.

"I was instructed to say as little 'opinion' as I could and followed council," he wrote in the email.

A Latter-day Saint spokesman has said any limitations in the testimony of witnesses was agreed to by Lovell’s trial attorneys, adding that church leaders generally do not participate in legal proceedings when the church is not directly involved.

“In this case, these leaders were required by subpoena to appear in court,” spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a 2016 statement. “Their statements represent their personal experiences and opinions. They do not speak for the church. Our hearts go out to the victims of this unspeakable crime.”

The Utah Supreme Court has ordered an evidentiary hearing for Lovell, asking a district court judge to decide whether one of Lovell’s court-appointed attorneys “performed deficiently” by failing to object to purported interference by church lawyers and failing to properly prepare witnesses.

Thompson would have testified at this upcoming hearing — but shortly after Lovell was convicted in 2015, Thompson was diagnosed with brain cancer.

He died in 2017. He spent much of those last two years writing a short book about his life called, “The Mountain.”

Thompson wrote about his five years working with inmates as a “Maximum Security Bishop” — including his interactions with an unnamed inmate, whom he describes as a “model prisoner.”

Lovell’s appellate attorney, Colleen Coebergh, said the inmate described in Thompson’s book is Lovell, and argued the writings appear to be Thompson’s last effort to “set the record straight.”

She’s now asking a judge to allow Thompson’s book to be admitted as evidence, arguing in court papers that Thompson’s writings show his true feelings about Lovell — what he could not tell jurors on the witness stand because of the limitations placed on him by church attorneys.

Thompson’s book centers around spiritual teachings and life lessons, as well as detailing his own struggles with depression. He wrote about the importance of charity and helping others, and shared details about an inmate he knew who helps those incarcerated with him and who donates his money to a charity.

“He has influenced many inside and outside the prison,” the book reads. “It makes a small difference but he sacrifices from behind bars when those of us on the outside do nothing. He is an inspiration to many who visit, including the founder of the charity.”

The Utah attorney general’s office has asked the judge not to allow the book to be a part of the hearing, saying it’s too vague and never mentions Lovell by name. It also argues that Thompson wrote the book over a two-year period and is not considered a “dying declaration” that would make it admissible in court.

The state attorneys further argued that Thompson’s book is irrelevant to the question the judge has to decide: Did Lovell’s trial attorney, Sean Young, “perform deficiently”?

Besides the issue with the church attorneys, Lovell has also raised questions about Young’s preparation before the trial.

Lovell's lead trial attorney, Michael Bouwhuis, wrote in an affidavit that Young, his co-counsel, was assigned to interview and prepare 18 witnesses, including former church members, Lovell's family members, and an inmate who said Lovell positively affected his life.

Of those 18, only two have said that they were contacted by Young before trial — but the conversations were brief and mostly concerned when they would testify, not the substance of what they would say.

Young’s public defender contract was terminated after Lovell’s trial, and he later had his law license suspended for three years.

A judge has not yet ruled whether Thompson’s book will be a part of Lovell’s hearing. That evidentiary hearing is scheduled to begin in early April and is expected to continue through the month. If a judge finds that Young was deficient, Lovell can use that finding to argue that he should get another trial because of ineffective assistance of counsel.

If he does get another trial, it would be the third time Lovell would face the possibility of the death penalty.

A judge initially sentenced him to die by lethal injection in 1993, after Lovell struck a plea deal that spared him execution if he could lead authorities to where he hid Yost’s remains in the mountains east of Ogden. Despite days of searching, her body was never found.

In 2011, the Utah Supreme Court ruled Lovell could withdraw his guilty plea because he should have been better informed of his rights during court proceedings. That led to the 2015 trial, in which a jury deliberated for 11 hours before deciding he should be executed.