SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has ordered a new hearing for a man on death row, pointing to "damning revelations" from star witnesses in his case who later said police had threatened them, given them gifts and told them to lie about the financial help.
If those details had come to light before Douglas Carter was sentenced to die, "a significant possibility exists that the outcome would have been different," according to the court's written opinion released late Friday.
Douglas Stewart Carter, 63, was convicted in 1985 of murdering 57-year-old Eva Olesen, who was stabbed and shot during a home-invasion robbery.
Jurors in the case relied on Carter's confession and his bragging to friends Epifanio and Lucia Tovar that he killed a woman. He appealed the sentence in 1992, and another jury upheld the death penalty.
Carter, originally from Chicago, appealed again based on sworn statements from the Tovars, whom prosecutors tracked down in 2011.
The Tovars revealed officers had threatened them with deportation, prison time and possibly taking away their infant son. After relocating them twice to protect them from Carter, Provo officers paid the couple's rent of about $400, plus utility and phone bills, and instructed them to lie under oath about the benefits during the trial, court documents say. According to the Tovars, officers also brought them groceries, a Christmas tree and toys for their son.
On the stand, the couple's testimony was at times inconsistent and is "tainted as a whole" by the new evidence, the opinion states.
Yet it was "crucial" to the state's case, Justice Deno Himonas wrote in the decision, noting that fingerprints and blood were found at the scene but no physical evidence tied Carter to the crime.
Prosecutors also relied on the testimony to explain why they sought the death penalty, arguing Carter told Epifanio Tovar the night of the killing that he intended to "rape, break and drive." They pointed to Lucia Tovar's statement that Carter also laughed when he returned, arguing he was "a man who delighted in killing," the opinion says. But the couple's recollections of those moments varied throughout the case.
"Carter has a colorable claim that the Tovars’ testimony evolved over time to become more damaging to Carter in an attempt to please the people who had provided them with rent money and threatened them with deportation and separation if they did not cooperate," the decision says.
The state, however, has contended inconsistencies could stem from fear of retaliation from Carter and that his defense attorneys have never challenged his own confession to police. They have said the testimony from Carter's friends mirrored his own admission to police about killing Olesen, the aunt of a former Provo police chief.
A lower court in 2017 said the new details would likely not have led to a more favorable outcome. The decision countered that there was actually a "signifcant possibility" of a different outcome, though not for certain.
The justices ordered a 4th District Court to conduct a fresh review of the new evidence. A hearing date has not yet been set.