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Ron Lafferty has been on Utah's death row for nearly two decades but court battles about his mental competence continue — though what those arguments may be will occur out of public view in a closed hearing.

On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson will begin a two-day evidentiary hearing in which medical experts will offer their opinions on the 71-year-old inmate's mental health and his ability to assist attorneys appealing his sentence in a federal habeas proceeding. Benson also has sealed more than 40 documents filed in the case over the past four years that deal with Lafferty's competence.

On Wednesday, Benson rejected a motion by a media coalition that includes The Salt Lake Tribune, the Deseret News, KSL-TV, KUTV, and the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists that sought to open the hearing and unseal the documents.

Benson acknowledged that the hearing was inadvertently not listed as sealed until Monday due to a "clerical error" but said the effort to open it was untimely.

"The media has had almost four years to challenge the sealed status of Mr. Lafferty's competency determination proceedings before the court," the judge said, "and it has not done so until now."

Benson said the hearing will remain closed and documents will remain sealed, as will a transcript of the hearing. However, he granted the media coalition's motion to intervene to challenge the sealed court filings.

According to trial testimony, Lafferty claimed to have received a revelation from God ordering that his sister-in-law Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, be killed. The two were murdered at their home in American Fork in 1984. Lafferty's brother Dan, 65, is serving a life without parole sentence for his role in the murders.

Lafferty was first sentenced to death in 1985. A federal appeals court overturned that conviction in 1991 after finding the wrong standard was used to assess Lafferty's mental competency.

Lafferty was subsequently found to be competent once again. At a second trial in 1996, he was convicted for the second time and sentenced to death.

Attorneys representing Lafferty say he has paranoid schizophrenia and is unable to rationally discuss his case with them.

Thomas Brunker, a Utah assistant attorney general and lead counsel for the state in death penalty cases, has previously argued that Lafferty's current state of competence is immaterial since federal appeals are a review of the state trial record and its competency decisions.

In a recent decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a defendant does not need to be found competent in a federal habeas proceeding such as Lafferty's given the "backward-looking, record-based nature" of such proceedings.

The media coalition argued that a blanket sealing of Lafferty's competency hearing and related documents is unwarranted given the public's compelling interest in "knowing the evidence relating to Lafferty's competency and in understanding the basis for the court's [decisions on] that issue." The coalition is represented by attorneys Jeff Hunt and David Reymann.

The Utah Supreme Court concluded in 1987 that the First Amendment right of access applied to pre-trial hearings on Lafferty's competency and opened the hearings to the public and the press.

Lafferty is "not entitled to a private adjudication of his competency in this post-conviction habeas proceeding any more than he was entitled to a private adjudication of his mental competency or guilt in his underlying criminal proceedings," the coalition argued in a motion filed Wednesday.

More recently, U.S. District Court Judge Dale Kimball conducted competency hearings for Brian David Mitchell, convicted in 2011 of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart in 2002, in open court. As in that case and others dealing with high-profile criminal defendants around the country, court documents that deal with Lafferty's competence should also be open, the coalition argued. Apparent gaps in the docket also need to be addressed, the coalition said.

Scrutiny of the basis for a decision regarding Lafferty's competence is important for understanding how that conclusion was made and ensuring confidence in the judicial system, the coalition said in its filing.

"In this case, neither Lafferty nor the State have attempted to make the requisite showing that public access to the competency hearing or sealed filings will jeopardize his fair trial rights or any other compelling governmental interest," the coalition said.

Twitter: @Brooke4Trib

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