Ogden • It was testimony they wanted to give more than four years ago, when Douglas Lovell’s life was on the line.
They had agreed to take the stand and tell 12 jurors that the man they just convicted of murder should be spared the death penalty. That his life was worth saving. But they were never called to testify in the 2015 trial, where the jury ultimately sentenced Lovell to be executed.
His attorney’s performance at that trial — and whether he contacted those possible witnesses — is at the heart of a monthlong hearing that began Monday. Second District Judge Michael DiReda is expected to decide at the end of the hearing whether one of Lovell’s public defenders failed to do his job, kicking off a process that could lead to another trial.
The first day focused on testimony from people who Lovell met in prison, who testified that the man had a positive effect on their lives.
There was Russell Minas, a former family law attorney who worked with Lovell in the mid-1990s so the inmate could see his son. But after that work was done, he testified, their friendship continued.
Lovell would call him every few weeks. He’d send Minas letters he typed with a prison typewriter, glossy photos of the mountains cut from magazines pasted among his words. They talked about everything, Minas said, from his family to the outdoors to how Lovell felt remorse for what he had done.
And then there was Leon Denney, a man who was in prison with Lovell during the late 1980s. He testified about how Lovell helped him get into a program at the prison that changed his life. He learned how to be more vulnerable, less angry and how to make better choices.
“Doug went to bat for me,” Denney said in a low, gravelly voice. “I don’t think I was their first pick or second pick for that matter.”
Both men said they had been approached by someone on Lovell’s defense team, a mitigation specialist, about the possibility of testifying at his trial about their relationship with the death row inmate. Both had agreed to do so.
But the men said they were never contacted by Lovell’s defense attorney or anyone else. They were never subpoenaed. No one told them when the trial was.
“Doug had called me [after trial] and he thought I had changed my mind,” Minas testified. “He felt that I betrayed him. I did everything I could to reassure him that I wasn’t there because nobody called me to testify.”
But did these people really know who Lovell is? During cross-examination, state attorneys went through the most gruesome details of what Lovell did to his victim, 39-year-old Joyce Yost. How he followed her home and raped her in her car. How he twice tried to hire people to kill her to keep her from testifying about it. How he ended up doing it himself — taking her from her home, forcing her to hike up a mountain, strangling her and then stomping on her neck. How he did all this just three years after he got out of prison for aggravated robbery.
Lovell had never told them those gruesome details, they testified. But it did little to sway their opinion that he would not harm anyone if he were released.
“Send him home with me,” Denney testified.
Lovell sat quietly during Monday’s hearing, sometimes slightly nodding in agreement with witnesses when they spoke highly of him. As state attorneys repeated the details of his crimes over and over to each witness, Lovell showed little emotion, his eyes downcast.
Lawyers with the attorney general’s office implied that maybe Denney, Minas and others weren’t called to testify as part of a defense strategy, that maybe their testimony was too similar to someone else’s or that their opinion on whether Lovell should ever be released may not have helped his case.
But Lovell’s appellate attorney in court papers has argued that Lovell’s trial attorney, Sean Young, didn’t do his job. Of the 18 witnesses he was tasked with preparing, only two have said they were contacted by Young.
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, including Lovell’s. The Utah State Bar’s Office of Professional Conduct agreed to drop 16 other complaints in exchange for the admissions.
Lovell’s appellate attorney has also accused The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its attorneys of meddling in his trial by telling his former prison bishops not to testify or to limit what they said on the stand.
A former mentor even came to Lovell in tears the day before the start of the trial and asked the inmate to not call him as a character witness, Lovell wrote in an affidavit filed with the Utah Supreme Court. The man told Lovell that a “member above him” in the church had told him not to testify.
Several of Lovell’s bishops are expected to take the stand this month during the evidentiary hearing, but the church was not discussed during the first day.
After weeks of testimony, DiReda, the judge, will make a finding on whether Young “performed deficiently,” and Lovell’s attorney will use that finding as she mounts a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.
The Utah Supreme 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 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.
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, where the jurors deliberated for nearly 11 hours over two days before sentencing Lovell to die for his crimes. A judge again ordered him to die by lethal injection.