A federal judge this week vacated the conviction and sentence of a Utah man who has been on death row for nearly 30 years over issues with how his public defender did his job.
Von Lester Taylor pleaded guilty in 1991 to killing two women after he and a friend broke into a remote cabin. The men kidnapped two sisters after killing their mother and grandmother, then shot the girls' father in the head, doused him with gasoline and set the house on fire, prosecutors allege. The father survived.
Though Taylor pleaded guilty to the crimes, U.S. District Court Judge Tena Campbell ruled this week that the plea wasn’t valid because of “inexcusably uninformed advice” from his defense attorney.
The public defender, Elliott Levine, did not conduct any sort of meaningful investigation, Campbell ruled, and did not seek out any experts who could have helped Taylor’s case.
Had Levine looked closely at the case and consulted with experts, Taylor's appellate attorneys have argued, he would have uncovered evidence that cast "significant doubt" on whether Taylor was the one who shot and killed the women, not his friend, Edward Deli.
His attorneys argue now that the women died from shots from a .44 Magnum that’s the gun Deli had been carrying, not the .38 Special that was Taylor’s weapon.
"The record shows there is a reasonable probability that, but for the trial counsel's failure to investigate, Mr. Taylor would not have pleaded guilty to two capital murders," Campbell wrote, "and would have insisted on going to trial with evidence that Mr. Deli, not Mr. Taylor, caused the deaths of Kaye Tiede and Beth Potts."
The Utah Attorney General's Office on Friday said they would appeal the judge's ruling.
Deli did not accept a plea deal and went to trial, where a jury convicted him of second-degree murder. He is serving a life sentence.
Taylor pleaded guilty in exchange for other charges being dropped — but prosecutors refused to take the death penalty off the table. A jury decided he should receive the death penalty.
Taylor is one of seven men currently on Utah's death row. He's the second inmate recently to have raised questions about a public defender's work on their cases.
Douglas Lovell, who also has been on death row for decades, is challenging the outcome of his 2015 retrial, alleging that his public defender did not contact witnesses who wanted to testify on his behalf during the penalty phase.
A state court judge has been tasked with deciding whether Lovell’s attorney failed to his job, a process that could lead to yet another trial for Lovell. Those proceedings are pending.