Fourth District Judge Cullen Y. Christensen will decide soon whether the Utah County attorney's office has a conflict of interest that will prevent it from prosecuting Ronald W. Lafferty a second time for the slashing murders of his sister-in-law and her infant daughter in 1984.
Lafferty, 51, was convicted in 1985 of killing Brenda Wright Lafferty and her infant daughter Erica. The two were found July 24, 1984, in their American Fork apartment with their throats slashed. Lafferty was sentenced to death for the crime. His brother, Dan, was also convicted of the crime and was sentenced to life in prison. The brothers said the killings were ordered by God.In March, however, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Lafferty's conviction and ordered a new trial. The court said the original trial judge used the wrong legal standard in finding Lafferty competent. Lafferty's religious delusions could have been judged as indications of incompetence, the court said.
Lafferty recently completed a series of mental evaluations at the Utah State Hospital. Two of the doctors who evaluated Lafferty have submitted reports to the court, and the third will likely submit a report this week. A hearing will be held the first part of October to determine if he is competent to proceed with a second trial.
A hearing was held Monday on a motion filed by Lafferty's attorneys, Mike Esplin and Gary Weight, who say the county attorney's office has a conflict of interest. They contend that deputy county attorneys Claudia Laycock and Sherry Ragan worked for them while they prepared Lafferty's appeals and were substantially involved in the case. They want the county dismissed from the case and a new prosecutor appointed.
However, the county says Utah has adopted a legal standard that says no conflict exists as long as steps are taken to isolate Ragan and Laycock from the case. Utah County Attorney Kay Bryson mentioned the potential conflict during Lafferty's first court appearance so the issue could not be brought up later in an appeal.
Christensen took the motion under advisement and said he will make a ruling soon. If he grants Weight's and Esplin's motion, the county would have to hire a private firm to prosecute Lafferty or turn the case over to the attorney general's office.
On Monday, Lafferty again told Christensen the Court of Appeals ruling should mean he has to be arrested and arraigned again.
"That may be your opinion, but it's not the opinion of the court," Christensen replied.
If Lafferty is found competent, a second trial will be scheduled. If he is found incompetent, he will remain at the Utah State Hospital until he becomes competent.