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Top court may overturn death-penalty sentences

If there are not enough qualified attorneys to take on death penalty appeals, the Utah Supreme Court said it may be forced to reverse death sentences and impose new sentences of life in prison.

Friday's ruling involved Michael Anthony Archuleta, 46, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1988 torture-murder of then-Southern Utah State College student Gordon Ray Church. Archuleta has tried to mount appeals over the years but recently ran into problems finding lawyers because the state pays so little to attorneys with expertise in the complicated and time-consuming appeals that they ultimately lose money.

"Competent defense and appellate counsel are guaranteed by our constitution," the high court said in a six-page ruling. "We cannot allow a defendant's life to be taken by the government without an adequate review of the conviction."

The court said it is the state Legislature's job to ensure there is enough money to train and pay qualified lawyers for these cases.

"It is left to the legislative branch to determine how best to accomplish this goal," the unanimous opinion states. "However, it falls to us, as the court of last resort in this state, to assure that no person is deprived of life, liberty or property, without the due — and competent — process of law.

"Without a sufficient defense, a sentence of death cannot be constitutionally imposed," the justices said. "This basic concept is bedrock upon which our constitutional government stands."

The original issue before the court was whether two lawyers handling Archuleta's case violated "Rule 11." The court determined that the actions of Ed Brass and Lynn Donaldson did not merit sanctions but the Supreme Court did require lawyers to comply with the rule.

Assistant Utah attorney general Thomas Brunker called the decision a significant improvement — and certainly not simply a technicality — because it means these cases now will move more quickly.

"When you file a petition and you fill it with claims that cannot be supported by the law — and you don't acknowledge that — it takes a lot longer to sort all that out," Brunker said. "The Supreme Court has said you have to be upfront with that."

Brunker argued before the high court that Brass and Donaldson included 43 claims in a 120-claim legal petition to a district court judge that were not supported by evidence or law and did not subsequently correct that, which Brunker said violated the rule. Brass, however, told the Supreme Court that he and Donaldson were obligated to do whatever they ethically could for their client because the stakes are so high in death penalty cases.

If a death row inmate is executed without due process and a full review of his case, "That's our nightmare," Brass said.

Richard Mauro, the attorney for Donaldson, told the Supreme Court that failing to introduce and preserve all the facts that could help a client might jeopardize appeals, especially if they move from state to federal court.

Fourth District Judge Donald Eyre previously found that there were no unethical actions by Brass and Donaldson. The Utah Attorney General's Office appealed Eyre's decision, but the state supreme court upheld it.

Archuleta currently has a different attorney.