Utah death row inmate Ron Lafferty dies of natural causes

(Tribune file photo) Ron Lafferty arrives at the 4th District Court in Provo Friday, May 6, 1988, to receive a new execution date. Lafferty, Convicted of the 1984 murders of his sister-in-law and her baby daughter, was scheduled to face a prison firing squad on June 24, but it appeared likely an appeal would bring a stay.

Ron Lafferty, who spent 34 years on Utah’s death row for the grisly murders of his sister-in-law and her baby daughter in 1984, died Monday at the Utah State Prison.

Lafferty, 78, whose full name was Ronald Watson Lafferty, died of natural causes at the Draper facility, prison officials said Monday. Though he had been on death row for decades, an execution date had not been set — but it was on the horizon after he lost his latest federal appeal in August.

His brother, Daniel Charles Lafferty, 71, who helped carry out the slayings, is serving a life sentence in a different unit at the Draper prison.

Therese Michelle Day, one of Ron Lafferty’s attorneys, said in a Monday statement that her client was mentally ill, and never able to assist his attorneys in his case. She wrote that Lafferty believed his incarceration was the result of a conspiracy between the state, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and “unseen spiritual forces,” including the spirit of the trial judge’s deceased father. He thought all of his attorneys were working against him, she said, and that one attorney was his reincarnated sister who later became possessed by an evil spirit.

“Through it all Mr. Lafferty, himself, never believed that he was mentally ill or incompetent,” Day said. “One expert said that if he was guilty of faking anything, he was guilty of pretending to be normal when he was not. Mr. Lafferty, like other mentally ill prisoners, was not treated for his mental illness as he should have been.”

Day said that while Ron Lafferty had an understanding of time and place, he lacked any rational understanding of the legal proceedings “that was not polluted by his delusions.” She said his execution should have been prohibited because of those mental health issues.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said in a statement Monday that state officials have “labored for decades” on Ron Lafferty’s case.

“That the wheels of justice turn so slowly in cases like this is cruel and tragic,” he said. “Now that Mr. Lafferty is facing his maker, perhaps ultimate justice will be realized and there will finally be some closure for the family of the victims.”

Ron Lafferty had chosen to die by firing squad.

The Utah Legislature ended this execution option in 2004, except for inmates who had already been sentenced to die and had selected the method. Then, in 2015, the Legislature added firing squads again, but only if courts determine Utah does not have the cocktail of drugs needed to execute an inmate by lethal injection.

Utah has not executed an inmate since Ronnie Lee Gardner was killed by firing squad in 2010. Ron Lafferty had been one of eight men on death row — and a recent ruling by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals made Lafferty the closest of them to execution.

The attorney general’s office had estimated in August that an execution date could have been “months” away, but a date had not been set, as Ron Lafferty’s lawyer still had time to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

(Utah Department of Corrections, via AP file) Ron Lafferty's most recent mugshot, released in August 2019.

There have been several efforts in recent years to abolish the death penalty in Utah, but the legislation never gained enough traction to become law. It’s expected to be debated again at the next legislative session, which begins in January.

Those who oppose the death penalty in Utah criticize it as outdated, inefficient and expensive. Most of Utah’s death row inmates have been there for decades, all convicted before 1999. Legislative analysts in 2012 estimated that a death sentence and years of appeals cost $1.6 million more than a life-without-parole sentence.

But lawmakers have kept the punishment on the books after hearing emotional testimony from victims’ family members, who say their families will be deprived justice if the death penalty is eliminated.

The murders

The 1984 slayings — which were examined in Jon Krakauer’s 2003 book “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith” — appeared to have been triggered by Ron Lafferty’s extremist views, which caused his wife to divorce him in early 1984 and take their six children with her to Florida, according to court documents.

Ron Lafferty had a fascination with Mormon fundamentalism, a growing preoccupation with male authority and a belief that he was receiving communications from God. Both he and Dan Lafferty had been excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and had joined a polygamous cult called School of Prophets.

Ron Lafferty blamed the breakup with his wife on four people, including sister-in-law Brenda Wright Lafferty and her baby daughter, “who he believed would grow up to be just as despicable as her mother,” court documents say. Ron and Dan were angry that Brenda Lafferty, who was married to their brother Allen Lafferty, had assisted Ron Lafferty’s wife in leaving him.

Ron and Dan Lafferty also were angry that their sister-in-law opposed Allen Lafferty joining the School of Prophets, according to trial testimony, and they believed her stance was interfering with a “divine” plan that required the participation of all six Lafferty brothers.

In the spring of 1984, Ron Lafferty claimed he received a revelation from God ordering that the four people be removed “in rapid succession,” and he allegedly shared the revelation with several other members of his small sect, including Dan Lafferty.

On the morning of July 24, 1984 — Pioneer Day in Utah — Ron and Dan Lafferty forced their way into 24-year-old Brenda Lafferty’s American Fork duplex while her husband was away. They severely beat her, strangled her with a vacuum cord and slit her throat, court documents say. Dan Lafferty then killed 15-month-old Erica Lafferty by slitting her throat.

The Laffertys were accompanied by two drifters — Charles “Chip” Carnes, 23, of Belen, N.M., and Richard “Ricky” Knapp, 24, of Wichita, Kan. — who shared the Laffertys’ religious views “to some extent,” court records say. Carnes and Knapp said they remained in the car when the brothers went inside Brenda Lafferty’s home.

(Courtesy photo) Brenda Lafferty, the sister-in-law of Ron Lafferty.

After leaving Brenda Lafferty’s house, the men broke into the home of Chloe Low, a friend of Ron Lafferty’s wife, who was the next intended victim, but no one was there, court records say. After taking numerous items, they left.

After missing the turnoff to the home of the fourth intended victim — Richard Stowe, the divorced couple’s ecclesiastical leader, whom Ron Lafferty believed was responsible for his excommunication from the Latter-day Saint faith — the men headed to Nevada. Carnes and Knapp left the next day for Cheyenne, Wyo., where they were arrested on July 30, 1984. The Lafferty brothers were arrested in Reno on Aug. 17, 1984.

Two trials

The Laffertys, Carnes and Knapp each were charged with two counts of criminal homicide, two counts of aggravated burglary and two counts of conspiracy to commit homicide. Carnes and Knapp later pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for testifying against the Laffertys.

Dan Lafferty went on trial first, in January 1985. Ron Lafferty, who was scheduled to stand trial with his brother, attempted suicide on Dec. 30, 1984, and was found unconscious hanging by a T-shirt tied to a towel rack in the Utah County jail.

Day, Ron Lafferty’s attorney, said Monday that this act damaged his brain, causing him to lose memory and the ability to control his emotions.

Judge J. Robert Bullock granted a motion allowing the Laffertys to be tried separately. Dan Lafferty represented himself before a 4th District Court jury, with two advisory defense attorneys standing by.

The 12 jurors convicted Dan Lafferty of two counts of first-degree murder and four other felonies but were unable to vote unanimously for the death penalty. He was sentenced to two life terms.

(AP file photo) Ron Lafferty, left, and his brother, Dan, were shackled as they appeared in Washoe District court for an extradition hearing in 1984. The brothers were eventually convicted of killing their sister-in-law and her toddler.

Ron Lafferty was represented by a lawyer at his trial, which began in April 1985.

Watson Lafferty testified that Ron Lafferty had bitter feelings toward Brenda and had referred to their sister-in-law as a “bitch.” And Knapp, who said he was in Ron Lafferty’s station wagon in the driveway, testified that Dan Lafferty forced his way into Brenda Lafferty’s home and he could hear an argument.

He suggested that Ron Lafferty go inside to help his brother, Knapp testified. After Ron Lafferty went inside, Knapp said, he could hear Brenda Lafferty begging not to hurt her child and the baby crying, “then there just wasn’t no more cryin’.”

‘I killed her'

The jury convicted Ron Lafferty and voted unanimously that he be put to death. The decision came after a penalty phase that included the testimony of five psychiatrists and psychologists, four of whom said Ron Lafferty was suffering from a severe mental illness but was able to appreciate that his acts were illegal.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver later overturned Ron Lafferty’s capital murder conviction and ordered a new trial after finding that the wrong standards had been used to evaluate his mental competency.

At a second trial, in 1996, Dan Lafferty testified that he alone killed both Brenda and Erica Lafferty.

“I’m not ashamed about what happened,” Dan Lafferty said. “It was just a matter of business.”

But Carnes said that on the way to Nevada, Ron Lafferty pulled a knife out of his boot, started to bang it on his knee, and said, “I killed her. I killed her. I killed the bitch. I can’t believe I killed her.” He then handed the knife to Dan, according to Carnes, and said, “Thank you, Brother, for doing the baby because I don’t think I had it in me.” Dan replied, “It was no problem.”

Allen Lafferty also took the stand and recounted finding the bodies of his wife and baby daughter. He testified that he had not taken Ron Lafferty’s revelation seriously.

Ron Lafferty was convicted and sentenced to death again, and he again appealed. The Utah Supreme Court affirmed his conviction and sentence in 2001.

(George Frey | AP file photo) In this Oct. 6, 2005 photo, convicted murderer and death row inmate Ron Lafferty is handcuffed after his court hearing in a courtroom in Provo, Utah. A judge denied an appeal from Lafferty who argued that his sentence of death by firing squad is cruel and unusual punishment.

Based on Dan Lafferty’s testimony that Ron Lafferty did not commit the murders, among other issues, the condemned man, who was represented by Utah and Arizona federal public defenders, continued to appeal after the second sentencing.

In October 2017, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson dismissed a petition that sought to vacate Ron Lafferty’s murder convictions and death sentence on the grounds that they violated his federal constitutional rights. The petition alleged the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment and said Ron Lafferty had spent years “under brutal prison conditions, experiencing daily trauma of facing death.”

But Benson, in rejecting that claim, quoted a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that says there is no support for “the proposition that a defendant can avail himself of the panoply of appellate and collateral procedures and then complain when his execution is delayed.”

That decision was appealed to the Denver-based 10th Circuit, where it was denied in August.