The evidence might have been old and jurors had more to consider this time, but the words Ronald W. Lafferty heard late Wednesday were the same as those he heard 11 years ago:
"Guilty," repeated six times - once for each of the counts against him.For the second time, a 4th District jury convicted Lafferty of two counts of capital murder for the 1984 gruesome murders of his sister-in-law and niece. Brenda Wright Lafferty, 24, and her daughter Erica, 15 months, were found July 24, 1984 in their American Fork home with their throats slashed from ear to ear. Brenda had also been choked and severely beaten.
The verdicts came after five hours of deliberations and just as Judge Steven L. Hansen was preparing to send the six-man, six-woman jury home for the night.
Besides being found guilty of the two capital murder charges, Lafferty was also convicted of two counts of aggravated burglary for breaking into Brenda Lafferty's home and the home of Highland resident Chloe Low. He also was found guilty of planning to kill Low and fellow Highland resident Richard Stowe.
Lafferty and his younger brother Dan were convicted of the same crimes in 1985. Dan Lafferty was sentenced to life in prison. Ron Lafferty was sentenced to death. However, a federal appeals court ruled in 1991 that Ron Lafferty should get a new trial. The court said former Judge J. Robert Bullock erred in determining his mental competence.
Lafferty sat calmly and attentive, like a person watching television, as the court clerk read the new verdicts about 10:45 p.m. He smiled briefly and said a few words to his attorneys. His only sign of disappointment came when he shook his head sideways for a few seconds as the jury was being polled.
Attorneys for both sides would not comment on the verdicts because of a gag order issued by Hansen. Prosecutors only said they are pleased, and defense attorneys only said they are disappointed.
Family members of Brenda Lafferty sat through most of the trial, but none were in the almost-empty courtroom when the verdicts were read. Her parents, Jim and LaRae Wright of Kimberly, Idaho, returned home early Wednesday evening following closing arguments. Before doing so, however, they praised prosecutors Creighton Horton II and Michael Wims.
"I thought they did an excellent job of presenting the case," Jim Wright said.
In closing arguments, Horton told jurors the evidence was overwhelming that Lafferty ordered the killings out of hate, rage and anger. He said Lafferty had a history of blaming others for his problems. He blamed his ex-wife Diana for their divorce, church leaders for his excommunication and later tried to blame God for the killings.
Horton said Lafferty tried to get others to do his dirty work for him. He said the so-called "revelation" that called for the "removal" of Brenda, Erica, Low and Stowe was Lafferty's way of getting others to carry out his revenge for encouragement given to Diana.
Horton said Lafferty used "Dan the zealot" to carry out the revenge. He also reminded jurors that nothing in the "revelation" ordered anyone to "beat Brenda viciously" or to steal from Low.
"Religion was used as a tool," Horton said.
Defense attorney Mike Esplin told jurors the case was one of mental responsibility. Lafferty was once a pillar of his family, church and community. When his wife sent him in 1982 to change Dan's extreme political and religious beliefs, he instead began adopting the same beliefs. He became "mentally stressed" when he was torn between his family and his new beliefs.
"Ron believed what Dan started," the attorney said.
Esplin said testimony from Dan was the most reliable because it was the only evidence of what occurred inside Brenda's home on July 24, 1984. Dan said he sliced both victims' throats and claimed Ron wanted out of the killings.
"There was no question that (Dan) was there and he did it," Esplin said.
Horton said testimony from Dan alone was sufficient to convict Ron. Dan admitted that Ron tried to beat Brenda unconscious and was also the one who cut a vacuum cord with which to choke Brenda. Dan also said Ron made several hateful statements to Brenda before she was killed.
"No matter who held the knife, Ron Lafferty has the blood of Brenda and Erica on his hands," Horton said.
When jurors retired for deliberations they took with them 59 pages of instructions loaded with 30 possible lesser offenses. Most of the lesser offenses included options relating to a possible finding that Lafferty was mentally ill in 1984 and mentally ill today. The jury obviously didn't agree with the defense's mental illness arguments.
Hansen ordered the jury to return Monday morning to begin deciding Lafferty's penalty. He could again receive the death penalty or be sentenced to life in prison. The penalty phase will likely take several days. Jurors will see more evidence of the gruesome crime scene and will likely hear from members of the victims' family.
Jurors are aware, because of evidence that came out in the trial, that Lafferty spent some time on death row. They also know that Dan Lafferty is serving a life sentence.