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Judge rules LDS Church didn't interfere in death penalty case

Temple Square
Posted at 4:24 PM, Mar 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-26 20:24:10-04

OGDEN, Utah — A judge has ruled The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not try to interfere with a death row inmate's case.

In a ruling handed down last month, the judge rejected Doug Lovell's bid for a new trial. The judge said Lovell had effective legal counsel in earlier proceedings.

Lovell sought to overturn his death penalty conviction, arguing in part that attorneys for the Latter-day Saint faith tried to interfere with his case by blocking some bishops assigned to minister at the Utah State Prison from testifying on his behalf.

Lawyers for the Church have argued that the bishops could not speak on behalf of the faith when it came to matters of policy and doctrine. But one suggested in courtroom testimony in 2019 that he broke ranks to testify in support of Lovell, who was trying to show that he had repented for his crimes.

In his decision, 2nd District Court Judge Michael DiReda rejected Lovell's arguments.

"While the Kirton McConkie attorneys threatened to file motions to quash if all five ecclesiastical leaders were called to testify, it was Mr. Lovell who settled that issue by agreeing to call only three of the leaders to testify. Consequently, no motions to quash were ever filed. And for those leaders who did testify, they stated at the evidentiary hearing that they already knew they were not authorized to speak for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints or about church policy and doctrine," Judge DiReda wrote.

"In addition, they consistently testified that the Kirton McConkie attorneys never tried to prevent them from testifying, never told them what to say, and only advised them to tell the truth. Mr. Young did not perform deficiently for not objecting to non-existent interference."

Lovell's case has taken many twists and turns. He was originally convicted for the 1985 murder of Joyce Yost, to silence her from testifying against him about kidnapping and raping her. The day he was to go to trial, he pleaded guilty and promised to lead police to her body, believed to be in Ogden Canyon.

But she has never been found, and Lovell was then sentenced to die. He appealed.

In 2011, the Utah Supreme Court overturned his conviction, ruling that he had not been properly advised of all his trial rights. He went on trial again in 2015 and was convicted and sentenced to execution.

Lovell is again seeking a new trial, and his defense has suggested the Church put pressure on the prison bishops from serving as character witnesses on his behalf and testifying about his redemption efforts while on death row. The Church, they believe, was concerned it would look like they were siding with a murderer (the faith is officially neutral on capital punishment).

In its own court filings, the Church denied that.

Greg Skordas, a criminal defense attorney who is not connected to the Lovell case, said lay clergy witnesses can be difficult to navigate in court, especially in a high-profile situation like a capital murder case.

"There’s always a risk if you call someone who has a calling either with a church or a political organization that their testimony reflects the feelings of that church or political organization," he told FOX 13. "In fact, in this case they were specifically instructed they could testify to facts — to what they saw, they observed about his repentance, if you will."

Court records show that Lovell's case has now gone back to the Utah Supreme Court for consideration.