SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge rejected a media petition to open a mental competency hearing scheduled Thursday for one of Utah's most infamous killers and longest-standing death row inmate.
The closure follows a pattern of secrecy going back at least four years since Ron Lafferty started appealing his death sentence in federal court. U.S. District Judge Dee Benson has allowed lawyers in the case to file at least 42 documents concerning the killer, including a number of psychological evaluations, under seal.
In his ruling, Benson wrote the media has had four years to challenge the closures but hasn't done so until now.
"The motion to unseal the competency proceedings and attend the evidentiary hearing, filed on the eve of the hearing itself, is untimely," he wrote.
Yet the media did not know the hearings would be closed. Lafferty's two-day competency hearing was not marked as closed on the court calendar when it was set in April. Benson attributed that to a clerical error that the court corrected on Monday, just three days before the hearing.
"Court hearings and records may be closed only in the most extreme circumstances. No such circumstances exist here," said Salt Lake media attorney Jeff Hunt.
"Given the importance of this issue — the basis upon which the court will decide whether a death row inmate is competent or not to assist in his legal proceedings — the public has a compelling interest in keeping the competency hearing and related court records open," he said.
Hunt petitioned the court Wednesday to open the hearing and unseal court records on behalf of the Deseret News, KSL-TV, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Utah Headliners chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Now that Lafferty, who has twice been convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death, has put his mental competency at issue in this proceeding, the court's adjudication of that issue is a matter of fundamental importance and legitimate public interest and scrutiny.
–Salt Lake media attorney Jeff Hunt
"Now that Lafferty, who has twice been convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death, has put his mental competency at issue in this proceeding, the court’s adjudication of that issue is a matter of fundamental importance and legitimate public interest and scrutiny," Hunt argued.
Hunt called Benson's ruling disappointing. But he noted the judge deferred ruling on whether to open the sealed documents, including a transcript of the closed competency hearing.
"It's not the equivalent of being able to attend and observe the proceedings, but it's what we're left with and what we'll continue to fight for," Hunt said.
Lafferty's federal public defenders filed a sealed motion requesting a competency determination for Lafferty in 2009. They argue that a preliminarily evaluation showed Lafferty, 71, is not able to rationally communicate or assist his lawyers. The state disagreed and believes Lafferty understands the legal process and is able to provide information necessary to litigate the case.
Both sides hired experts to evaluate Lafferty yet again.
Lafferty's lawyers argued in court documents that they shouldn't have to disclose attorney-client information, attorney work product and lines of investigation and evidence.
The Utah Attorney General's Office, including capital appeals division chief Tom Brunker, contended Lafferty did not show a need to seal documents or close hearings. Brunker said the state believes the hearings should be open, though he has filed sealed documents to comply with Benson's order.
Attorneys for Lafferty did not respond to telephone calls and emails for comment.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that federal courts should not automatically suspend post-conviction challenges by death row inmates who are mentally unable to help their lawyers. The decision left open the possibility of a stay, but said it should not be indefinite.
"Where there is no reasonable hope of competence, a stay is inappropriate," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court.
If Benson finds Lafferty incompetent, he could suspend the case under certain conditions, including whether he finds Lafferty is likely to regain competence in the foreseeable future.
Claiming God directed them, Lafferty and his brother Dan Lafferty slashed the throats of their sister-in-law Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, on Pioneer Day in 1984. Dan Lafferty was sentenced to life in prison in 1985, Ron Lafferty to death.
This is not the first time Ron Lafferty's mental capacity has been at issue. It came up during his first trial as well his appeals in state court, none of which were held in private.
A federal appeals court overturned his conviction in 1991 because the wrong standard was used to determine his mental competency for trial. He underwent another round of psychological assessments and a state judge found him able to stand trial again in 1996. A jury again convicted him and the judge sentenced him to die. Lafferty chose execution by firing squad.
The Utah Supreme Court denied Lafferty's request for a new trial in 2007. The state's high court based its decision, in part, on the question of whether he was mentally competent in 1985. The justices concluded that given several mental evaluations, Lafferty was competent.
The ruling exhausted his state appeal options, and he turned to federal court to stop his execution.
Former federal judge and University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell said it's unusual to have all the court proceedings and documents closed in a case.
There's a balance between the public's right to know and personal psychological information that might be considered private, he said. "The trick is to strike the right balance between those two competing concerns," he said.