SALT LAKE CITY -- Federal public defenders for a man sentenced to death for killing two people in Utah in 1990 claimed Tuesday that the prosecutor discriminated against potential jurors based solely on their religion.
The proof is in a scoring system found in prosecutorial notes that show lower-ranked jurors were kept for the sentencing of Von Lester Taylor, while a Methodist woman was struck from the jury, said Deputy Federal Public Defender Brian Pomerantz in a hearing before the Utah Supreme Court.
Pomerantz said the county prosecutor tried to eliminate jurors who were not active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which he claimed was as much a violation of their constitutional rights as striking a potential juror because of their sex or race.
Chief Justice Christine Durham disputed the notion that lawyers could not use religious beliefs for jury selection, especially in a death penalty case.
"You're keeping tabs on everything about a juror in a capital murder case," Durham said. "Certainly you would be tracking religion ... it's not improper."
Because a person's religion often reflects their beliefs, it is fair for lawyers on either side to eliminate people from a jury pool because of religion, Utah Assistant Attorney General Erin Riley said.
In the Taylor case, however, the Methodist woman struck by prosecutors also had been previously represented by the lead prosecutor, showed up late to jury selection and was familiar with the trial, Riley said.
Taylor is currently on death row for the murders of Beth Potts and her daughter Kaye Tiede after he broke into their Summit County cabin in 1990. Taylor pleaded guilty to the murder, and a jury recommended the death penalty. A co-defendant, Edward Steven Deli, received a life sentence.
Police said Taylor repeatedly shot Potts, 72, and Tiede, 49. Police said Taylor and Deli then shot Kaye Tiede's husband, Rolf, and kidnapped two of his daughters before setting the cabin on fire and fleeing. Law enforcement rescued the daughters.
Rolf Tiede survived, even though he was shot point-blank in the head and doused with gasoline when the cabin was set on fire.
Riley said the state Supreme Court has upheld lower court rulings about the jury selection process and other claims made by the defense regarding inconsistent witness statements.
The hearing was the third appeal filed by Taylor in a case in which he admitted to the crimes. Riley said the only purpose for the ongoing legal process was to delay the execution.
"Mr. Taylor committed two horrific murders and the victim's daughter saw him do it," Riley said after the hearing.