A Utah inmate who has spent 33 years on death row will get a new hearing after he raised questions about what perks and benefits two witnesses received from police.
In a Friday opinion, the Utah Supreme Court found that the new “damning revelations” could have affected the outcome of Douglas Stewart Carter’s case.
In 1985, a jury convicted Carter of murder based on a written confession Carter gave to police, which Carter later argued was coerced. But prosecutors presented two witnesses at trial to corroborate the confession: Epifanio and Lucia Tovar, who testified that Carter had bragged about killing 57-year-old Eva Olesen, the aunt of Provo’s police chief at the time.
Carter was sentenced to die, but he appealed. In 1992, another jury upheld the death penalty.
The Tovars had disappeared by that time, and prosecutors could not find them to have them testify at the resentencing. They relied on the couple's words from the previous hearing to argue Carter should be executed for his crimes.
But Carter’s defense team found the couple in 2011, and they made a bombshell claim: They said Provo police paid their rent, and gave them groceries and gifts in the months leading up to the original trial. They were told to lie about those payments if they were asked about them on the witness stand, they said. And the couple said they felt pressured to testify by the police, who threatened to deport them or take their infant son from them if they did not cooperate.
In its decision, the Utah Supreme Court found that the Tovars’ testimonies were at times inconsistent and “tainted as a whole” in light of these new declarations.
“We hold that there exists a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the outcome of the trial would have been different but for the absence of the evidence,” the opinion reads.
The high court found that the Tovars’ testimonies were crucial to the state’s case, because prosecutors relied on their accounts about how Carter told them he had intended to rape Olesen and laughed about her death.
The case will now be sent back to the district court, where a judge will hold an evidentiary hearing. No court dates have been set.
Carter has made various appeals over the past three decades, but few have stuck. He has argued, among other things, that his confession was coerced and should have been suppressed; that the prosecutor had tainted the jury by indirectly commenting on his decision to not take the witness stand in his own defense; and that his counsel had been ineffective.
The Utah Supreme Court has previously rejected all but one issue raised by Carter — that the jury instructions were flawed in his original hearing — and ordered that Carter be resentenced in 1992.
Carter is one of eight inmates on Utah’s death row. All have pending appeals, and no execution dates are set. Another inmate, Douglas Lovell, similarly has an evidentiary hearing pending in district court over testimony issues in his 2015 retrial.
It’s been more than a decade since Utah prosecutors have secured a death penalty conviction. The last person sent to death row was Floyd Maestas, who was sentenced to die in 2008 for stomping a woman to death. Maestas died last December of natural causes.