Nation - Utah Death row inmate can withdraw 1993 guilty plea

By Elizabeth White

Associated Press Writer

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A Utah death row inmate can withdraw his guilty plea in a murder case after the Utah Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a lower court shouldn't have denied his motion to do so.

Douglas Lovell's 1993 plea was for the 1985 slaying of Joyce Yost before she could testify against him in a kidnapping and rape trial.

Lovell pleaded guilty on the day his murder trial was to begin. Weeks later, a judge sentenced him to death.

The court ruled Tuesday that there was good cause for Lovell to withdraw his plea because the trial court didn't comply with a rule in finding that Lovell was informed of his right to a presumption of innocence and public trial. The rule, 11(e), sets out the requirements for a lawful guilty plea.

"The rights listed in rule 11(e) are guaranteed by our constitution and case law, and a plea cannot be knowing and voluntary if the defendant is unaware of them," the court said. "Because the trial court failed to strictly comply with rule 11(e) ... we hold that there was good cause for Mr. Lovell to withdraw his plea."

The high court sent the ruling back to Utah district court for further proceedings. Weber County Attorney Dee Smith said he intends to try Lovell, 52, and seek the death penalty.

Assistant Utah Attorney General Laura Dupaix said she thinks the reversal was based on a legal technicality.

"This is strictly about whether or not the trial courts followed correct procedural rules in taking his guilty plea," Dupaix said. "The Utah Supreme Court said it did not."

Lovell's defense attorney, David Finlayson, said he met with Lovell at the Utah State Prison on Tuesday and that Lovell was pleased with the ruling.

"I think they (the Utah Supreme Court) would have had to change the standard not to rule this way and they stayed with the strict compliance standard that they've had for many years," Finlayson said.

Finlayson had argued before the high court that the judge failed to review all of the constitutional rights Lovell would surrender by entering the plea, including the presumption of innocence and that a jury would have to reach an unanimous verdict in order to impose the death penalty.

Those omissions raised questions about whether Lovell understood what he was doing when he entered the plea, Finlayson said.

Dupaix argued Lovell was fully informed of his rights and that the plea agreement and sentence should stand, even if the judge failed to use "specific magic words."

Lovell twice confessed to killing Yost during recorded conversations at the prison with his estranged wife, who was secretly working with police.

He first asked to withdraw the plea in August 1993, just weeks after sentencing. In a letter to the judge, Lovell said he had wanted a jury -- not the judge -- to hear the penalty part of the case and decide the sentence.

He also claimed his trial attorney led him to believe that it was unlikely he would receive the death penalty because he was working with police.

In the plea deal, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty if Lovell helped police locate Yost's buried body in the mountains east of Ogden. Despite a five-week search, Yost was not found.

Yost, who was strangled, had been kidnapped and raped four months before she was killed. Her testimony in a preliminary hearing helped convict Lovell of the crime. He was serving a prison term of 15 years to life on those charges when prosecutors charged him in Yost's death.

Dupaix said Tuesday's decision was "difficult."

"This really wreaks havoc on victims," she said. "And I think it really kind of wreaks havoc on the system overall."

Yost's daughter, Kim Salazar, called the ruling an "absolute outrage."

"I just don't think any of this is right or fair," she told The Associated Press. "He doesn't deserve another trial. ... He just didn't like the outcome so he just changed the rules."

Published: Thu, Jul 29, 2010

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