The question of whether death-row inmate Ron Lafferty is mentally competent to assist his attorneys with ongoing appeals aimed at thwarting his execution may be moot in light of a new U.S. Supreme Court decision.
On Jan. 8, the high court ruled in the cases of death-row inmates in Arizona and Ohio that, unlike trial proceedings, state prisoners do not have a constitutional or statutory right to suspend federal habeas proceedings based on incompetency. The court said judges, however, do have limited discretion to stay cases on that basis.
The case against Lafferty, convicted twice in the 1984 Utah County murders of his sister-in-law Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, has been on hold for three years while his current mental health has been assessed. A third psychological evaluation of Lafferty was filed under seal on Nov. 21 by the state.
But U.S. District Judge Dee Benson on Tuesday asked attorneys to address whether a competency determination is still warranted in light of the U.S. Supreme Court decision and whether the stay should be lifted. He gave the attorneys until the end of February to file and respond to each other's arguments.
The U.S. Supreme Court said that at trial "an incompetent defendant would be unable to assist counsel in identifying witnesses and deciding on a trial strategy." But, "given the backward-looking, record-based nature of most federal habeas proceedings, counsel can generally provide effective representation to a habeas petitioner regardless of the petitioner's competence," the court said in its unanimous decision.
It also rejected the argument that a right to counsel implies a right to be competent to assist that counsel.
Lafferty's attorneys say their client has paranoid schizophrenia and is unable to rationally discuss his case with them.
But state prosecutors will be arguing that no further stay is appropriate.
"The purpose of the delay was to find out if he was competent and not whether he has a right to be," said Thomas Brunker, a Utah assistant attorney general and lead counsel for the state. "The Supreme Court has now said he doesn't have that right."
Brunker previously argued that Lafferty's current competency is immaterial since federal appeals are a review of the state trial record and its competency decisions.
Ken Murray, a federal public defender representing Lafferty, said he had not yet reviewed the high court's ruling.
"All I can say is that we have to look at it and decide if and how the case applies," he said.
Murray declined to comment on Lafferty's current mental state because that information has been sealed by the court, saying only that "in general, it's his ability to assist us" which leads the defense to believe he is not competent.
Lafferty and his brother, Dan, were convicted of the killings.
According to trial testimony, Lafferty ordered the killings after claiming he received a revelation from God. Dan Lafferty slashed the victims' throats at their American Fork home on July 24, 1984.
Dan Lafferty, now 64, is serving a life without parole sentence, while Ron Lafferty, 71, first received the death penalty in 1985.
A federal appeals court overturned that conviction in 1991 after finding the wrong standard was used to determine his mental competency. Lafferty was subsequently found competent; at a second trial in 1996, he was again convicted and sentenced to death.