Role of LDS Church, work of a public defender questioned as death row inmate Douglas Lovell seeks another trial

It’s been more than three decades since Douglas Lovell raped a 39-year-old woman and then, in an attempt to stop her from testifying, killed her.

He’s been sentenced to die by lethal injection — twice.

But Lovell, one of Utah’s eight death row inmates, is nowhere near an execution date.

And an evidentiary hearing that starts Monday could pave the way for yet another chance for Lovell to avoid a lethal injection.

During this evidentiary hearing that will stretch through the month of August, several controversial topics in Utah are expected to be discussed — the death penalty, the state’s public defender system and the possible interference in the case from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

At the end of this hearing, a judge will make a ruling on whether one of Lovell’s court-appointed attorneys failed to do his job, kicking off a process that could lead to another trial.

Here are some of the big issues that will be hashed out starting Monday:

Did Lovell’s public defender do his job?

Sean Young, one of Lovell’s attorneys at trial, was assigned to interview and prepare 18 witnesses, including former church leaders, Lovell’s family members and an inmate who said Lovell positively affected his life.

Those witnesses were expected to testify during the penalty phase of the trial, where jurors would make the decision on whether Lovell should be executed. After the trial, Lovell received a number of letters from supporters who said they wanted to testify on his behalf — but they said Young never contacted them.

Lovell wrote in an affidavit that Young made it appear as if he had spoken to those witnesses and that they did not wish to testify.

“In my case,” Lovell wrote, “it would be hard for any jury to see me as a human being and a life worth saving through the testimony of those who knew me well because my attorney, Sean Young, did not contact, prepare and get my witnesses to court.”

Of the 18 witnesses, only two have said they were contacted by Young before trial, but added that their conversations were brief.

One of Lovell’s former bishops reported after the trial that he had only two phone calls with Lovell’s attorneys which lasted no more than three minutes. He wasn’t prepped before the hearing and his testimony wasn’t discussed.

He and two other former bishops met in person with Lovell’s attorneys “for about two minutes” during the trial, Lovell’s appellate attorney alleged, but the substance of their testimony wasn’t discussed.

After Lovell was convicted in 2015, Young’s Weber County public defense contract was terminated, according to county officials. And in October, his law license was suspended for three years after he admitted in a court filing that he violated attorney rules in four cases. The Utah State Bar’s Office of Professional Conduct agreed to drop 16 other complaints in exchange for the admissions.

Did The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints meddle in Lovell’s trial?

Several witnesses who were slated to appear later told Lovell’s attorney that they faced a hard choice: Either testify on behalf of a murderer they had come to know as a friend or appease their Latter-day Saint church leaders and remain silent.

A former mentor even came to Lovell in tears the day before the start of the trial, Lovell wrote in an affidavit, and asked the inmate to not call him as a character witness. The man told Lovell that a “member above him” in the church told him he could not testify.

Lovell’s appellate attorney argued in court papers that Young failed to object to this interference from the LDS Church.

Several of Lovell’s former bishops are expected to testify at the evidentiary hearing this month, and church attorneys have sought to limit that testimony as recently as last week.

In a last-minute motion filed Thursday, church attorneys with the law firm Kirton & McConkie wrote that Lovell’s current attorney, Colleen Coebergh, has indicated to them that she wants to question the onetime bishops about church doctrine, including inquiries about how the faith views capital punishment, excommunication, repentance and re-baptism.

The church attorneys argue these topics are not relevant and should be off-limits.

They also deny that the church meddled in Lovell’s case, saying they had only indicated to Young that they would oppose bishops being asked about church doctrine during the 2015 trial. Young had said he hadn’t planned to go there, they wrote in filings.

But Coebergh says the church’s policy about leaders not testifying amounts to witness tampering — a conclusion church attorneys called offensive.

Coebergh wrote that one of Lovell’s former bishops had been willing to testify, but didn’t go through with it after consulting with Kirton & McConkie attorneys. He later told Lovell’s attorneys that he was “discouraged from testifying.”

“It is a sad commentary that admissions to discouraging witnesses from testifying are accepted as ‘policy,’” Coebergh wrote in a court filing. “Policies and practices which interfere with court processes cannot be allowed to stand if Mr. Lovell is to achieve the fair proceeding guaranteed him by the Constitution.”

If there were mistakes, are they big enough to get Lovell off of death row?

Lovell’s case is on appeal before the Utah Supreme Court, which ordered this evidentiary hearing.

A 2nd District Court judge will decide whether Young “performed deficiently,” and Lovell’s attorney will use that finding as she mounts a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.

The state’s highest court could reject that claim, or it could order Lovell should get a new trial. If the justices make that decision, it will be the third time Lovell would face a death penalty conviction.

Lovell pleaded guilty to killing Joyce Yost in 1993, striking a plea deal that would have spared him the death penalty if he could lead authorities to Yost’s body — which he had buried in leaves and dirt after he strangled her in the mountains east of Ogden.

(Photo courtesy of Kim Salazar) The Utah Supreme Court has ruled that death-row inmate Douglas Lovell can withdraw his guilty plea to capital murder. That means the case starts over again and he'll likely go to trial on charges that he kidnapped and murdered Joyce Yost in 1985 to keep her from testifying that he raped her.

After a fruitless search, an Ogden judge sentenced Lovell to death by lethal injection. But, 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 trial in 2015. Twelve jurors deliberated for nearly 11 hours over two days before deciding Lovell should be executed. A judge again ordered him to die by lethal injection.

And now, more than three years later, Coebergh will start questioning witnesses this week as she builds a case to ultimately ask the Utah Supreme Court to set aside that jury’s verdict and allow Lovell to go to trial once more.