In Utah death penalty case, public defender says he only admitted errors to move on

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Defense attorney Sean Young, left, sits with Douglas Lovell during his murder trial in 2015.

Ogden • When former public defender Sean Young signed a 24-page document agreeing to give up his law license for three years, he admitted to damning facts about the work he did on a trial for a Utah death row inmate.

He said he interviewed only two of the 18 witnesses he had been assigned to prepare before Douglas Lovell’s 2015 trial. That he had reassured Lovell and another attorney that he was doing his job. That he did not properly question witnesses on the stand, and that he didn’t properly object when attorneys with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tried to limit how many bishops could testify.

But as Young sat on the witness stand in an Ogden courtroom this week, he asserted none of that was actually true. He said he never read the document before signing it in July 2018.

“My only purpose of signing this was to have all of these complaints go away,” Young testified, “and get rid of all of this and move forward.”

Young was facing accusations from 20 clients who told the Utah State Bar that he hadn’t handled their cases properly, including Lovell.

But for Lovell, the stakes were higher. After his 2015 trial, a jury sentenced him to die for killing a woman in 1984 to prevent her from testifying that he had previously raped her.

Lovell is appealing the outcome of the trial, and an evidence hearing has been underway this month. Young’s performance in 2015 — and whether he contacted those possible witnesses — is at the heart of the hearing. Second District Judge Michael DiReda is tasked with deciding whether Young failed to do his job, a process that could lead to another trial for Lovell.

This is the first time Young has spoken publicly about the allegations and so far, he’s spent nearly 12 hours answering questions about Lovell’s case.

Young’s memory was fuzzy about many of the specifics, but he asserted Tuesday: “I tried to make contact with every single person I was assigned.”

His testimony contradicted that offered by others. Kent Tucker, a Weber County bus driver who is married to Lovell’s cousin, said Young never reached out to him; instead, he showed up to the courthouse during trial and found Young in the hallway, asking when he could testify on Lovell’s behalf.

He said Young put him on the stand that afternoon with little preparation, and he testified for less than 15 minutes. Tucker wonders now if he would have gotten to testify at all if he hadn’t tracked down Young in the courthouse.

Young testified he had talked to Tucker on the phone and had met with him in a conference room for about a half-hour. Tucker testified they had only spoken in the hallway.

“I’m not accusing him of lying,” Young said. “I’m just telling you my recollection.”

And then there was Jack Newton, a former prison bishop, who testified that he didn’t meet with Young until the day he was supposed to take the stand. He said he wished the attorney would have prepared him more.

“I didn’t think I did such a great job,” Newton said. “Maybe it would have been better if I had been prepared a little.”

In his testimony, Young didn’t remember many of the specifics of who he contacted or when. But he said he reached out to everyone he had been assigned, and some didn’t get back to him. Others may have told Lovell they wanted to testify, but then backed out when they learned about some of the more gruesome details of Lovell’s crimes.

Young also testified about how attorneys for the LDS Church tried to limit the number of prison bishops who would testify. The defense team wanted five — but church attorneys said if they didn’t settle on three, they would file a motion to exclude all of the bishops.

It was midtrial by this time, and Young ultimately agreed to limit the bishops, worried if he didn’t that none would testify. He said the church attorneys also asked him to avoid certain topics involving church doctrine.

He testified that he would have made a different decision if he had to do it again, and wouldn’t have backed down on whittling the bishop witness list down to three.

Michael Bouwhuis, who was Lovell’s lead trial attorney, testified earlier this month that the church attorneys had threatened to file motions if they insisted all five bishops testify, and said it was possible that the church’s prison program would be in jeopardy if they moved forward.

“The concern was they appeared to be trying to manhandle us,” Bouwhuis said, “saying you can’t call these people.”

Bouwhuis explained that having the bishops and Lovell’s friends testify was part of their trial strategy, to show that Lovell had changed since his crimes three decades ago. Lovell didn’t contest his guilt, and the attorneys instead were trying to appeal to the jurors’ emotions to spare his life.

“We thought it was important for them to have information that would humanize Doug,” he testified.

Bouwhuis testified that while he had some concern over Young procrastinating, he didn’t think at that time that his co-council wasn’t doing his job.

But after Lovell’s trial, Young’s Weber County public defender contract was terminated. And then, in 2018, his license to practice law was suspended.

At the end of this ongoing hearing, DiReda, the judge, will rule 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.

Lovell pleaded guilty to killing Joyce Yost in 1993, but was allowed to withdraw his plea in 2011 after the state’s highest court ruled the judge should have better informed Lovell of his rights during court proceedings.

That led to the 2015 trial, where jurors debated for 11 hours over two days before sentencing Lovell to die.