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Utah Supreme Court debates right of defendant to decide evidence

By Emiley Morgan | Posted - Oct. 4, 2011 at 3:37 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Supreme Court justices and attorneys Tuesday wrestled with the question of whether a death row inmate has the right to decide against putting on evidence that may have spared him the death penalty.

"The problem with this case is that the jury never got to make a reasoned, moral decision about whether Floyd (Maestas) should die," defense attorney Joan Watt said.

She told the state's five justices that whether or not to present mitigating evidence in Maestas' case was a strategic decision that should have been made by attorneys — not the defendant. Maestas waived his right to have the evidence put forth as he was adamant that he didn't want any information publicized that could embarrass his family.

Maestas waived his right to have the evidence put forth as he was adamant that he didn't want any information publicized that could embarrass his family.

"That's the problem here," Chief Justice Christine Durham said. "The defendant didn't want it. What is the court's right to override the defendant's right to assist in his own defense?"

Watt said the decision was an impulsive one, made in the middle of the penalty stage of the case and after the aggravating evidence had been presented by prosecutors. The decision made it much more difficult for attorneys to achieve a sentence of life in prison without parole.

"If you look at discussions with Floyd, you see this disconnect, this lack of understanding" Watt said. "He does things to front, to pretend that he's smarter than he is."

She talked about the man's mental capacity, which she repeatedly characterized as "sub-average intellectual functioning" and said it should make him exempt to capital punishment under Utah law. But a lower court found that Maestas wasn't considered mentally retarded, because his IQ was found to be over 70 — a standard that was set by U.S. Supreme Court.

One test put him at 77, attorneys said. But assistant attorney general Karen Klucznik said IQ tests administered by the state show he could test as high as the low-90s which "puts a lot of distance between him and mental retardation." She told those on the state's high court that letters sent by Maestas and other communications show the man was not impulsive or irrational.

"How could it not be irrational to ask the court to exclude evidence that would provide mitigation to the death penalty?" Durham asked.

Klucznik said Maestas was making a conscious decision to protect his family and avoid being known as mentally disabled, which he feared could cause him problems in prison. But Durham questioned how a defendant's rights could trump the fairness and reliability necessary in the courts system.

"The right to assistance of counsel is exactly what it says — counsel is an assistant, not the master of the case," Klucznik said.

She said Maestas answered a series of questions given by the trial court judge indicating he understood his decision and its implications.

"(Maestas) doesn't want any evidence that reflects poorly on his family," Klucznik said. "He understood … he didn't want to present the evidence."

Watt conceded in a rebuttal that "these are tough cases" and that Maestas had a difficult time hearing some of the evidence, but the call on mitigation evidence is still "a tactical one for the lawyer."

The Utah Supreme Court justices took the case under advisement.

Klucznik said after the hearing that the court's ruling will set a precedent for future, similar cases.

Maestas, 55, was sentenced to die following a 2008 jury trial in connection with the 2004 stomping death of 75-year-old Donna Lou Botts.

Prosecutors say Maestas broke into Bott's Glendale home with the intention to rob the woman.

Two other men, who also participated in the robbery but insisted they did not take part in the violence, testified that Maestas beat, strangled and stomped the woman to death.

The same night, the trio also went to the home of an 86-year-old woman who was roughed up and robbed.

Both co-defendants agreed to plea deals with a lesser charge in exchange for cooperating with prosecutors, and they were sentenced to prison terms of one to 15 years.

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