SALT LAKE CITY – A Utah man sentenced to death in a 1985 murder case is appealing his conviction by arguing the Mormon church interfered in his trial.
Douglas Lovell, 58, has been counseled by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bishops in prison, and he wanted them to testify as character witnesses after he was granted a new trial, his lawyers wrote in court documents.
But Mormon officials were concerned the bishops' testimony could make it seem like church representatives approved of a murderer, so they told some members to keep testimony brief while preventing others from testifying at all, attorneys argue. One mentor tearfully asked not to be called as a character witness after a higher-ranked member cautioned him against it, Lovell said.
Lovell's lawyers say that kept the jury from seeing how sorry he was for his crime and showing that his life has value, the Salt Lake Tribune reported (http://bit.ly/1NZQSYy).
"The church, out of concern for its policies, pressured witnesses not to testify or cooperate with Mr. Lovell," attorney Samuel Newton wrote. "And put witnesses in the position of having to disobey their church leaders to support Mr. Lovell."
The church, though, said Lovell's lawyers agreed to any restrictions on testimony. Spokesman Eric Hawkins says leaders don't usually participate in court cases unless it directly involves the church, but in the Lovell case the people who had talked with him were subpoenaed and testified to their personal opinions.
"Our hearts go out to the victims of this unspeakable crime," Hawkins said in a statement.
Lovell is appealing a second jury verdict that sent him back to death row last year in the rape and murder of Joyce Yost.
He wants a new evidence hearing to question witnesses and show his trial court lawyers failed him by not raising enough objections to the church interference.
Lovell made a similar argument shortly after the verdict came down last year, but a judge denied his request for a new trial.
Prosecutors said Lovell followed Yost to her driveway and raped her in 1985, then spent four months plotting to kill her to prevent her from testifying against him.
Lovell broke into her home with a knife after his plans to hire a hit man fell through. He ignored her begging, drugged her and drove her to a canyon where he strangled her, stomped on her neck and buried her in leaves, prosecutors said.
Lovell pleaded guilty to killing Yost in 1993 to avoid the death penalty, but a judge imposed it anyway after Lovell couldn't fulfill a condition of the plea deal and find her body. He cooperated in a search, but she was never found.
The Utah Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 2010, ruling he wasn't informed of his right to a presumption of innocence and a public trial. He was convicted again and sentenced to die a second time in 2015.