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Death row inmate gets 2nd chance

Court OKs appeal due to lawyer’s ‘deplorable’ work

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Matt Hunsaker, with a picture of mother, Maurine, said his entire family was devastated by the decision made by the Supreme Court justices.

Matt Hunsaker, with a picture of mother, Maurine, said his entire family was devastated by the decision made by the Supreme Court justices.

Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News

Utah's highest court has said death row inmate Ralph LeRoy Menzies should be able to start his post-conviction appeals all over again, due to the inadequate legal work of a prominent Salt Lake City attorney.

The Utah Supreme Court ruling basically puts the case of Menzies, who was convicted in the brutal 1986 murder of Maurine Hunsaker, right back where it was immediately after he was sentenced to death by now-retired 3rd District Judge Raymond Uno in 1988.

The Supreme Court said Friday in a 54-page ruling that attorney Ed Brass, who took on Menzies' post-conviction case, did such a terrible job that justice calls for Menzies to have another try at post-conviction relief. Brass did not return phone calls Friday.

In practical terms, that could mean years of court hearings and even the possibility of raising new claims.

Menzies, 58, is seeking a review of both his murder conviction, which was decided by a jury, and his death-penalty sentence, which was decided and imposed by the judge.

At that time, there was no "life without parole" sentence on the law books, so the judge had only two options: the death penalty or life with the possibility of parole.

Maurine Hunsaker, who was 26 and had three children when she died, was kidnapped from her night-shift job at a Kearns gas station, tied to a tree, strangled and had her throat slashed.

Her son, Matt Hunsaker, who was 10 when she died, said his entire family was devastated by the decision made by the Supreme Court justices.

"This is a huge blow, especially at this time of year," Hunsaker said. "To add insult to injury, we don't have my mom with us, and now,'Merry Christmas' — you guys just gave us one of the biggest blows in the case yet."

Hunsaker said he would never be satisfied with anything less than Menzies' execution. "He knew what he was doing. He killed my mom in cold blood, so he should pay with his own," Hunsaker said. "I plan to outlive him by a long shot, but I will fight to my death for this."

Hunsaker did not criticize Brass for this latest turn of events but did fault the criminal-justice system overall.

After being sentenced, Menzies began his appeals. He filed a claim for post-conviction relief in 1995 and, after several lawyers refused to take the case, the court appointed Brass in 1998. Brass withdrew from the case in 2003.

"To say that Brass did little to represent Menzies during this five-and-a-half year period would be an understatement," the ruling said. "In fact, Brass' representation in this case was deplorable.

"Our review of the record indicates that Brass not only failed to provide Menzies with any meaningful representation but in fact willfully disregarded nearly every aspect in this case. In effect, Brass defaulted Menzies' entire post-conviction proceeding, resulting in the dismissal of Menzies' case."

The high court criticized Brass for almost non-existent communication with Menzies, including instructions to staff to hang up on Menzies' collect phone calls from prison and making few or no responses to letters. The court also faulted Brass for not hiring investigators requested by Menzies, nor making use of state funds available for such use.

Among the other complaints: Brass neglected to file documents on time, did not file responses, and did not provide discovery requested by the state.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Brunker said he was not surprised by the ruling but found it disappointing.

"In essence, this will start 11 years of litigation all over again," Brunker said. "Even though Maurine's family didn't do anything wrong and the state didn't do anything wrong, Menzies gets to start all over again because Ed failed so badly."

Brunker notes this will constitute Menzies' third amended petition for post-conviction review and he may be able to raise new claims. The case is before 3rd District Judge Stephen Roth.

"We will do everything we can to speed it up," Brunker said. "As of right now, we will continue to pursue this aggressively."

The ruling, which was written by Chief Justice Christine Durham, was supported by all the other justices. However, Associate Chief Justice Michael Wilkins added comments at the end, questioning why an attorney with Brass' reputation for excellence would perform so poorly. Wilkins also wrote that he is distressed by the absence of consideration for victims and the "extreme level of attention" given to convicted felons during the extensive and costly appeals process in capital cases.

"I am not certain that those convicted of death-eligible offenses against the rest of us deserve the extreme level of attention we extend to them in the name of being absolutely certain of their guilt and that their crime warrants death," Wilkins wrote. "I think it might be better to abandon the effort and simply impose a life-long removal from society. I suppose an alternative might be to expend the effort and resources instead in training and educating our children to prevent capital crime in the first place."


E-mail: lindat@desnews.com