SALT LAKE CITY — He was sentenced to die nearly 30 years ago, but now a federal court has overturned the conviction of Utah death row inmate Von Lester Taylor, saying that he received ineffective counsel during his trial decades ago.
“The court concludes that Mr. Taylor’s guilty plea was unconstitutional and must be invalidated,” U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell wrote in the decision handed down Tuesday. “He has established that his attorney, Elliott Levine, provided him with deficient representation falling well below the prevailing professional norms.
“Because Mr. Taylor’s death sentence was based on his invalid guilty plea, it must be vacated.”
On Dec. 22, 1990, Taylor and Edward Deli walked away from a halfway house in Salt Lake City, and then broke into a vacant mountain cabin in the Beaver Springs subdivision in Oakley, Summit County. But less than three minutes after Kay Tiede and her mother, Beth Potts, a blind and partially handicapped Murray woman, arrived at the cabin and walked in on them, they were shot multiple times and and killed.
Tiede’s husband was also robed shot multiple times, including once in the head. He was then doused with gasoline as he pretended he was dead. He survived.
Taylor and Deli then set the cabin on fire and kidnapped Tiede’s two daughters. The two men were arrested following a high-speed chase with police.
On May 1, 1991, Taylor accepted a plea deal, pleading guilty to two counts of capital murder in exchange for eight lesser charges being dropped. The deal, however, did not include taking the death penalty off the table and he was sentenced to death.
Deli, meanwhile, did not accept a plea deal. He went to trial and was convicted of a lesser second-degree murder count and sentenced to life in prison. The judge recommended that he never be paroled. Deli had originally been charged with capital murder, but one juror held out and the other 11 jurors eventually consented to the lesser charge.
In her 37-page decision, Campbell wrote that Levine did not properly investigate the case, assuming that Taylor’s guilt was a foregone conclusion.
“The court finds that Mr. Taylor’s constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel was violated when he pleaded guilty to two capital murders based on inexcusably uninformed advice from counsel which then exposed him to the possibility of execution. The record shows there is a reasonable probability that, but for trial counsel’s failure to investigate, Mr. Taylor would not have pleaded guilty to two capital murders and would have insisted on going to trial with evidence that Mr. Deli, not Mr. Taylor, caused the deaths of Kaye Tiede and Beth Potts,” according to the decision.
Since his conviction, Taylor, now 54, has filed numerous appeals, many of which have made it to the Utah Supreme Court, arguing that Levine failed to conduct an adequate investigation to find mitigating evidence, according to court documents.
“Still, the Utah Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision because it found that Mr. Levine’s deficient performance did not prejudice Mr. Taylor,” the latest ruling states. “Given the horrendous circumstances of this crime, it is not at all likely that the jury would have concluded that the mitigating circumstances outweighed the aggravating circumstances.”
Taylor then petitioned a federal appeals court on the basis of “actual innocence.”
“In March 2018, the court held a three-day evidentiary hearing, during which the parties presented ballistics and medical forensics evidence, along with supporting expert testimony. Based on that evidence, the court, on February 25, 2019, held that Mr. Taylor had satisfied his burden to show ‘actual innocence,’” the new ruling states.
The court found that the bullets fired by Deli’s gun caused the actual deaths of Tiede and Potts, even though Taylor also shot them, according to court records.
During Deli’s trial in 1991, he denied shooting anyone during the crime spree. Prosecutors said common sense indicated otherwise because he was seen several times carrying one of the murder weapons and reloading it.
Because of the new ruling, Taylor was able to again argue that Levine’s errors represented a “miscarriage of justice.”
“He did not visit the scene. He did not hire an investigator. And critically, he did not consult, much less hire, experts,” according to Campbell’s ruling. “If Mr. Levine had fulfilled his duty to investigate by, for example, hiring a ballistics expert and a forensics expert, he would have uncovered evidence that contradicted the state’s evidence.
“Mr. Levine was not informed when he advised Mr. Taylor, and he made little to no effort to become informed. There was no articulated, or conceivable, strategic reason for failing to hire an investigator and experts in a death penalty case,” the court ruled.
According to the Utah State Bar’s website, Levine’s bar certification in Utah is currently suspended.
A spokesman for the Utah Attorney General’s Office said Thursday that the it does plan to appeal the ruling.