These days, Richard Mack is better known as “Sheriff Mack,” who has garnered a cult-like following in right-wing circles for espousing his belief that county sheriffs have the first and last say when it comes to enforcing the law and interpreting the U.S. Constitution.
But back in 1985, Mack was a young cop in the Provo Police Department, having worked his way up from writing parking tickets, when he got called in to help on a high-profile murder case.
It was in the course of that investigation that Mack, his lieutenant and a prosecutor collaborated to violate an accused man’s constitutional rights and ended up putting him on death row for 37 years. Last month, a judge overturned Douglas Carter’s conviction.
Their scheme, dissected in excruciating detail in a 116-page opinion issued just before Thanksgiving by 4th District Court Judge Derek Pullan, entailed paying more than $4,000 to key witnesses, threatening them with deportation and coaching them to lie on the stand to cover up the gifts and the threats.
It worked, and for nearly three decades, Carter was behind bars. That is until the witnesses against him eventually told the truth, leading to the Utah Supreme Court ordering another hearing for Carter, and Pullan ruled the conduct of the officers had deprived Carter of a fair defense.
“Had the state disclosed to Carter the financial benefits paid on behalf of the [witnesses], the police threats of arrest, deportation, and separation, and the coaching of … false testimony by the police,” Pullan wrote, “there would have been a reasonable probability of a different verdict in both the guilt phase and the sentencing phase of Carter’s trial.”
The Utah Attorney General’s office plans to appeal. If they prevail, Carter’s execution will be back on track. If the appeal fails, it will be up to the Utah County Attorney to decide if they want to re-try Carter for the murder of Eva Oleson.
Oleson, the aunt of the Provo police chief at the time, was found dead in her home in February 1985. During an apparent home invasion, she had been bound, stabbed 10 times and then shot in the head.
Police included Carter among their initial suspects because he was suspected of an attempted car theft earlier that night. A few months after the murder, Carter’s wife told police that she thought her missing .38 caliber handgun may have been the murder weapon.
Officers searched the home and recovered several items of bloodstained clothing and a box of bullets. They also identified two witnesses, Epifanio Tovar and his wife, Lucia, who said Carter told them he’d killed Oleson the night of the murder. Carter was arrested and supposedly later confessed to police Lt. George Pierpont — although Carter has claimed the confession was coerced.
Without physical evidence placing Carter at the scene, the Tovars’ testimony was crucial.
Mack, who served a mission with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Central America and majored in Latin American studies at Brigham Young University, was the only Spanish speaker on the Provo police force and became the main point of contact for the Tovars.
“It was my responsibility to make certain the Tovars were happy,” Mack testified at a re-hearing last year.
To keep them happy, he arranged to pay their rent, their heat and their phone bill. He gave them additional cash, bought Christmas gifts for their children and delivered a Christmas tree to their home, according to testimony. Asked about the gifts on the stand, both Tovars denied receiving anything beyond the $14 witness fee.
Carter was convicted and sentenced to death.
It wasn’t until 2011, when Carter’s attorney located the couple, that the Tovars told the truth about the payments and the Utah Supreme Court, based on the “damning revelations,” determined that Carter was entitled to a review of his case.
At a hearing last year, the Tovars testified that Mack had told them to lie about having received any of the gifts or payments, which totaled about $4,000 over the span of several months. They testified that Pierpont and Mack had repeatedly threatened to deport the Tovars and separate them from their son.
It was revealed during testimony that Pierpont had told Epifanio Tovar that Carter had tried to pin the murder on him — which was not true — and Tovar could get the death penalty himself. They were also coached to lie and say Carter had planned to rape Oleson.
Pierpont and Mack disputed the claims, but Judge Pullan said neither was credible, because their stories were always changing and often contradicted by other evidence.
In the end, Pullan determined that the officers and the prosecutor in the case, Wayne Watson, had fabricated testimony, encouraged witnesses to lie on the stand, concealed evidence from the defense and done nothing to rectify the misconduct — all of which warranted overturning the conviction and sentence.
Carter’s attorney, Eric Zuckerman, summarized the impact of these officers’ actions well.
“For 37 years,” he said, “the State of Utah has imprisoned Mr. Carter on death row based on an unconstitutional conviction and sentence secured through perjured testimony and secret payoffs to witnesses. These actions undermine the integrity of Utah’s justice system and its use of the death penalty.”
Indeed, the case points to deep flaws in the system and a failure to hold any of those who abused it accountable for their actions.
Mack moved on from violating Carter’s constitutional rights to build his celebrity as a constitutional expert and anti-government zealot, including serving on the board of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group. Neither he nor Pierpont will ever suffer any consequences.
Mack did not respond to a request for comment on the case by publication.
Carter, meanwhile, sat on death row and likely would have been executed by the state had the Tovars not come clean. And he is not the only one in Utah where serious problems have arisen.
ElRoy Tillman’s death sentence was reduced to life in prison after it was revealed that prosecutors had concealed two key witness interviews that might have aided his defense.
And Von Taylor’s death sentence was overturned after ballistics and forensic evidence showed he didn’t fire the fatal shots in a gruesome murder for which he is condemned to die. The appeals court reinstated the sentence because he was an accomplice in the killing. Now he is due to die and the guy who pulled the trigger is serving life.
Last year, state Rep. Lowry Snow sponsored a bill to do away with the death penalty in future cases, arguing problems with the system raise a risk of executing the wrong person and decades of appeals take a toll on victims’ families.
The bill was beaten back by objections from some victims’ families and assurances from the attorney general’s office of the system’s integrity.
But we can see now how imperfect our justice system can be, tainted not just by bias and mistakes, but brazen misconduct. And how can we justify the ultimate punishment unless we have complete confidence that justice is being done?