State v. Lafferty

Citation749 P.2d 1239
Decision Date11 January 1988
Docket NumberNo. 20740,20740
PartiesSTATE of Utah, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Ronald Watson LAFFERTY, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtSupreme Court of Utah

Richard B. Johnson and Michael D. Esplin, Provo, for defendant and appellant.

David L. Wilkinson and Sandra L. Sjogren, Salt Lake City, for plaintiff and respondent.


Defendant Ronald Watson Lafferty appeals from two convictions of first degree murder, two convictions of aggravated burglary, and two convictions of conspiracy to commit murder. On the two convictions of first degree murder, the jury imposed the death penalty. On appeal, Lafferty raises numerous claims of error and argues that his convictions and sentences must be reversed. We affirm all convictions and all sentences which are the subject of this appeal.

Ron Lafferty believed that Brenda Lafferty, the wife of his brother Allen, had encouraged and assisted Ron's ex-wife in obtaining a divorce from him. After his divorce, Ron, who had previously been excommunicated from the Mormon church, began claiming that he had received a divine revelation that four individuals, including Brenda and her infant daughter, Erica, were to be "removed." On July 24, 1984, Ron and his brother, Dan Lafferty, made numerous comments to two companions that "the Lord" wanted Brenda and her child to die. On the same day, Ron and Dan forced their way into Brenda's house while Allen was away. Ron beat Brenda, strangled her with a vacuum cord, and slit her throat with a knife. Dan killed fifteen-month-old Erica by slitting her throat. Ron, Dan, and their companions subsequently broke into Chloe Low's house, intending to murder her, but Low was not at home. They also discussed the murder of Richard Stowe, the local Mormon leader who had excommunicated Ron, but abandoned that plan when they passed the turnoff to his residence. Ron and Dan Lafferty were later apprehended and tried separately. Dan, who was tried first, was convicted of capital murder among other charges and received two life sentences. Ron's trial was delayed, in part because of concerns that he might be incompetent to stand trial and in part because of his suicide attempt and violent behavior in jail. When he was tried, Ron was convicted of murder for the deaths of his sister-in-law and niece and of conspiring to murder Chloe Low and Richard Stowe in addition to other charges. He was sentenced to death. Further facts are set forth below.

On appeal, Lafferty raises a number of issues, including claims that the trial court erred by forcing him to stand trial while incompetent, denying him his right of self-representation, disallowing evidence of his insanity, allowing biased jurors to decide the case, allowing prejudicial remarks by the prosecutor, admitting gruesome photographs, and admitting evidence of his violent behavior in jail while awaiting trial.

The first claim is that Ron Lafferty was not competent to stand trial. Utah law prohibits the trial of a person who is incompetent. Utah Code Ann. § 77-15-1 (1982). On September 27, 1984, the prosecuting attorney filed a petition to determine Ron Lafferty's competence to stand trial. At a hearing held on October 23, 1984, the trial court heard testimony from several witnesses, observed Lafferty's conduct, considered the reports of two experts who had examined Lafferty, and found him competent to proceed.

Within a few days, the Utah County Sheriff filed a petition to redetermine competency because Lafferty had assaulted several people in jail. Lafferty was ordered to the Utah State Hospital for evaluation. During the period between November 5 and November 27, 1984, four court-appointed examiners evaluated Lafferty's condition and unanimously concluded that he did not suffer from a mental disease or defect, that he could comprehend the nature of the proceedings, and that he could assist counsel in his defense. At an in-camera proceeding held on November 30, 1984, the court again found Lafferty competent to proceed.

On December 29, 1984, Lafferty attempted to hang himself, but was resuscitated after being found unconscious and without a heartbeat. Because of the possibility of organic brain damage, the four examiners who had made the second evaluation conducted a third. On January 28, 1985, after hearing the testimony of Lafferty and the examiners, the trial judge found that Lafferty was incompetent to stand trial at that time. The trial judge stated, however, that the evidence showed great improvement in Lafferty's condition since the attempted hanging, improvement that would probably continue until Lafferty would be competent to stand trial. The trial judge ordered continued hospitalization and treatment.

On March 19, 1985, the four examiners released a follow-up report on Lafferty's progress. They stated that the organic problems caused by the suicide attempt had been partially resolved and that Lafferty's personality structure and demeanor had come to approximate his condition prior to the suicide attempt. The examiners found that Lafferty had a factual understanding of both the nature of the proceedings and the potential punishment for the offenses charged. Although the organic problems resulting from the suicide attempt had abated to such an extent that they no longer rendered Lafferty incompetent, the examiners believed that he was suffering from paranoia and was therefore incompetent. 1

In describing the symptoms of the paranoid disorder, the examiners stated that Lafferty's pervasive religiosity, which had been noted during the November, 1984 evaluation, had since developed into a "religious delusional system," that Lafferty was unable to determine the boundaries between himself and spiritual beings, that he was experiencing "blurred ego boundaries," that he was suffering from a "religious martyr complex," that his mind had created a "paranoid pseudo-community involving the legal and social systems," that one of Lafferty's revelations was "reflective of Messianic grandiosity," that Lafferty felt the hospital and the judicial system were agents of corrupt man-made law and were on trial before God, and that it was "impossible for him to [understand] the inconsistency of his objecting to others infringing on his liberty [while he claimed] an entitlement from God to infringe on the liberty of others."

The trial court held a competency hearing on April 2, 1985. Three of the four examiners who submitted the report testified at the hearing. Lafferty was questioned, and the State called an expert witness who differed with the four examiners in that he found Lafferty competent. On April 8, 1985, the trial court issued a memorandum opinion finding Lafferty competent to stand trial.

On appeal, Lafferty asserts that all of the reliable evidence supported a finding of incompetence and, therefore, that the trial court's contrary finding was factually erroneous. In essence, Lafferty argues that the court arbitrarily rejected the analyses and conclusions of the four court-appointed examiners who had observed him over a long period of time in favor of the opinion of one state expert who had relatively brief exposure to the matter. We reject this claim.

In a competency proceeding, a trial court must determine whether an accused has the ability to understand the nature of the proceedings and the potential punishment and has the ability to assist counsel in his or her defense. Utah Code Ann. § 77-15-2 (1982). 2 Such a determination is ultimately a mixed question of fact and law. Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 174-75 n. 10, 95 S.Ct. 896, 905 n. 10, 43 L.Ed.2d 103 (1975); Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375, 385-86, 86 S.Ct. 836, 842, 15 L.Ed.2d 815 (1966); White v. Estelle, 459 U.S. 1118, 1121-23, 1125-26, 103 S.Ct. 757, 758-60, 74 L.Ed.2d 973 (1983) (Marshall, J., dissenting). The legal part of the question is the proper interpretation of the statutory standard. Of course, any such interpretation must adequately protect the due process rights of an accused. See Drope, 420 U.S. at 163, 171-72, 174-75, 95 S.Ct. at 899, 903-04, 905; Pate, 383 U.S. at 378, 86 S.Ct. at 838; White, 459 U.S. at 1121, 103 S.Ct. at 758 (Marshall, J., dissenting).

Lafferty expressly challenges the trial court's findings of fact. He does not expressly claim that the trial court violated his right to due process under either the federal or the state constitution by misinterpreting the statute. However, he does make an apparent attack on the trial court's statutory interpretation by pointing out that he did not cooperate fully with his counsel at trial. Therefore, we reach the federal due process issue despite Lafferty's failure to clearly raise it. We do not reach the parallel state constitutional issue because Lafferty has not briefed it. See infra note 5.

As we read section 77-15-2, the relevant inquiry is whether Lafferty had the ability to assist counsel, not whether he in fact chose to assist counsel or to comply with all of counsel's wishes. This reading of the statute complies with federal due process standards. See Drope, 420 U.S. at 172, 95 S.Ct. at 904; Pate, 383 U.S. at 388, 390-91 & n. 4, 86 S.Ct. at 843, 844-45 & n. 4 (Harlan, J., dissenting); Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402, 402, 80 S.Ct. 788, 788, 4 L.Ed.2d 824 (1960) (per curiam). The trial court applied the statute as we have interpreted it. It specifically found that Lafferty had the ability to assist his counsel and that his mental condition was such that his due process rights would not be denied by proceeding to trial. We conclude that Lafferty's due process rights under the federal constitution were not violated by the application of section 77-15-2 as interpreted by the trial court.

Lafferty has directly challenged the trial court's factual findings under the statute. Findings of fact will not be overturned unless clearly erroneous. Utah R.Civ.P. 52(a). The clearly erroneous...

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