The Utah Supreme Court will ultimately have to decide which version of Utah law will apply to condemned murderer Douglas Lovell amid a complex legal twist that has placed both of his guilty pleas under two different legal standards.
The death-row inmate was escorted into an Ogden courtroom under tight security Wednesday for the first court hearing since the Utah Supreme Court ruled in April that Lovell's motions to take back his guilty plea to capital murder need to be considered almost 12 years after he admitted to killing a woman to keep her from testifying against him in a rape/kidnapping case.
Second District Judge Michael Lyon said Lovell had filed his first motion in 1993 independent from his attorney, but never received a response from the state. In 2001, Lovell again filed a motion to take back his plea. In between that time, however, the Utah Legislature changed the law, making it more difficult for criminal suspects to take back voluntary pleas.
Lyon said the Supreme Court's opinion required that both motions be considered under the law at that time.
Lovell's attorney, James Retallick, said given the differences in the laws in 1993 and 2001, the judge could very well make two conflicting rulings. In that event, Lyon said the case will have to go back to the Utah Supreme Court for the justices to decide which motion will win out.
Generally, Lovell claims he was not fully apprised by his former defense attorney, nor the sentencing judge, of the consequences he faced by pleading guilty on the eve of trial in June 1993, to the 1985 murder of Joyce Yost. Lovell reportedly killed Yost, whose body was never found in Ogden Canyon where Lovell said he buried her, to keep her from testifying against him at a trial on charges that he had previously raped her.
Retallick told the court that Lovell's former attorney had assured him that if he plead guilty to murder, there was "no way" the judge would give him the death penalty, which was not the case.
Assistant Attorney General Chris Ballard said in order for the court to grant Lovell's motions, Lovell would have to prove there was some confusion on his part about the constitutional rights he was waiving.
In 1993, Utah law required that a defendant prove a judge omitted adequate notification of the constitutional rights that they are waiving, such as the right to a jury trial, if they pleaded guilty, said Assistant Attorney General Thomas Brunker. In 2001, the Legislature changed the law requiring the defendant to prove that he/she did not knowingly or voluntarily plead guilty, which is a higher standard of proof.
Retallick said he may want to take the issue to the Utah Supreme Court sooner and ask the justices to rule on which version of the law applies before the district court holds hearings.
Lyon said he must be notified if Retallick will petition the high court by Sept. 15.
Brunker indicated Lovell may have an uphill climb to succeed in his chance to possibly avoid the death penalty through re-sentencing. Brunker points out that in addition to confessing the murder to his ex-wife, who was wearing a wire at the time, Lovell in open court admitted before pleading guilty he wanted to accept responsibility to spare his family any further heartache.