Judge rules the LDS Church didn’t meddle in Utah death penalty case

The judge also rejected the argument that Doug Lovell’s public defender didn’t do his job during a 2015 trial.

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

A Utah death row inmate has spent the last four years arguing his public defender didn’t do his job and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints meddled in his trial.

Doug Lovell’s attorneys have said in court papers that witnesses were effectively silenced by the church, or never contacted at all by his court-appointed attorney. The lawyers argued these witnesses were family members, inmates and former church leaders who would have told jurors at Lovell’s 2015 trial that the man had positively affected their lives.

These testimonies could have swayed the jurors, Lovell argued, to not give him the ultimate punishment.

But they did: Lovell was sentenced in 2015 to die by lethal injection for killing a woman three decades ago in an effort to silence her after she had reported he had raped her.

He’s been appealing that latest verdict ever since. In a recent court ruling, an Ogden judge said Lovell’s public defender, Sean Young, wasn’t deficient in his representation. Second District Judge Michael DiReda also said the church didn’t interfere with Lovell’s case.

Lovell is one of seven men currently on Utah’s death row. He’s nowhere near an execution date.

His case has been winding through the criminal justice system for decades, after he pleaded guilty in 1993 to killing Joyce Yost. He struck a plea deal then that would have spared him the death penalty if he could lead authorities to Yost’s body — which he buried in leaves and dirt after he strangled her in the mountains east of Ogden in 1985.

PHOTO COURTESY OF KIM SALAZAR Photo of Joyce Yost. 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. Roy 7/27/10

He couldn’t find the body, and he was sentenced to die by lethal injection. But the Utah Supreme Court ruled years later that he could withdraw his plea, and the case started over.

Lovell was again convicted in 2015.

Since then, lawyers have been arguing about those claims involving his public defender and the LDS Church. DiReda, the Ogden judge, was ordered by the Utah Supreme Court to hold an evidence hearing and make his own findings — which he did in a 168-page decision handed down last month.

Now the case gets kicked back to the Utah Supreme Court, which has the ultimate say in whether Lovell will get another trial.

Lovell had argued that Young, the public defender, was assigned to interview and prepare 18 witnesses, who 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.

But DiReda said this claim was overstated. The judge said Young didn’t call many of those people for strategic reasons as they would have said damaging, not complimentary, things about Lovell.

The judge also said there was no interference from LDS Church lawyers, who DiReda said told Lovell’s former bishops to tell the truth, but did not emphasize what they should say.

“For those leaders who did testify, they stated at the evidentiary hearing that they already knew they were not authorized to speak for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints or about church policy and doctrine,” the judge wrote.