OGDEN — The first of many hearings regarding convicted killer Douglas Lovell’s appeal began Monday in an Ogden courtroom.
Lovell, 61, was present in court for the start of the 23B hearings for his case. The hearings, named after Rule 23B in the Utah Criminal Code, will determine whether or not Lovell received ineffective assistance of counsel during his most recent jury trial, which took place in 2015. Lovell is one of eight men on Utah’s death row, and has twice been convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to death, once in 1993 and again in 2015.
Lovell was first arrested in 1985 after the murder of South Ogden woman Joyce Yost. Lovell had previously been charged with raping Yost, and he killed her to prevent her from testifying in court, according to court documents.
The hearing began Monday morning not with opening statements, but with a closed-door meeting in judges chambers, which included Lovell’s defense attorney, prosecutors from the Utah Attorney General’s Office and two attorneys representing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After the meeting, the attorneys representing the Church left the courtroom.
One focus of the hearings is also to determine whether or not the LDS Church interfered in any way with the 2015 trial. However, those allegations were not in the spotlight during the Monday hearing.
Monday’s hearing saw testimony from people who had interacted with Lovell while in custody at the Utah State Prison.
The first witness called to the stand was Russell Minas, then a family attorney in Salt Lake City, who first met Lovell in 1997. Minas said he was called to help a death row prisoner, later known to be Lovell, with a family matter regarding one of his kids.
Minas had previously interacted with another person in prison, and he said the experience was less than pleasant. With Lovell, the experience was much different. “Doug was engaging, intelligent, articulate, and had sense of humor,” Minas said.
Over the years, the two have remained in contact through letters and phone calls. Minas, now a commissioner for Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court, said that despite speaking with a mitigation specialist, he was never called to testify during the 2015 trial.
Minas said that one of Lovell’s attorneys at the time, Sean Young, reportedly told Lovell that Minas wasn’t available to testify because Minas had a scheduling conflict. But that wasn’t true, he said.
Young’s actions during the 2015 trial is one of the focuses for the series of 23B hearings. Young was assigned to contact 18 witnesses to testify at Lovell’s trial, and assured his co-counsel that he was doing his work, but said many of them were being uncooperative. According to complaints filed against Young, he only contacted two witnesses.
In October 2018, Young had his license to practice law in Utah suspended for three years after it was discovered that he mishandled a number of cases, including Lovell’s 2015 trial.
Later, a second man who took the stand, Leon Denney, shared feelings about Lovell that were similar to Minas’ statements. Denney, too, was not told to come to court to testify for the 2015 trial. Denney knew Lovell when the two were in prison from 1988 to 1989. He was in prison for a forgery-related conviction along with being convicted of killing a police officer in Cedar City before his conviction was overturned by the Utah Court of Appeals.
Denney said that he was “angry at the world” when he entered prison, but credited his personal growth to Lovell. Denney, who now lives in Idaho with his family, said that if Lovell would ever be given parole, he would have a home with Denney. Like Minas, he also has kept in contact with Lovell over the years, and said Lovell has shown remorse to him multiple times.
“In life you just have to start taking ownership of your life, and Doug has done that, he’s been very remorseful, he told me it really eats at him. It was hard for him to come to peace with himself,” Denney said.
However, prosecutors Mark Field and Aaron Murphy from the Utah Attorney General’s Office asked both Minas and Denney respectively if a man like Lovell would be worthy of being freed. Field and Denney asked both men about the details of the case, like how Lovell stalked Yost to her home moments before attacking and raping her in her car before he ultimately kidnapped her and strangled her in the mountains just east of Ogden.
The details, which both men said they did not know until being told Monday, gave both men pause. Minas acknowledged to Field that there would be some level of risk if Lovell would be released, but the risk in his opinion would be minimal. He said he believes that Lovell would not reoffend if he was released.
Murphy shared the details of the case with Denney, who said he did not know the details of the case prior to Monday. He admitted that the details of the rape and murder of Yost made Lovell sound like a predator, but reiterated his belief that Lovell would be a “model citizen” if he was released from prison.
“I believe that God has changed his life, and that he would not do that again,” Denney said. “Do I know that 100% for sure, no, no one knows anything 100 percent except God.”
A third witness called to the stand Monday, Holly Neville, used to work with inmates at the Utah State Prison. Unlike Minas and Denney, Neville testified during the 2015 trial. However, she said that she was never asked whether or not she believed Lovell could be a functional member of society, to which she said Monday that could be the case. Neville described Lovell as a “model inmate” in her dealings with him at the Draper prison.
It is important to note that with Lovell’s present death sentence, the possibility of parole is not an option at this point in his case. The possible outcomes of the 23B hearings would either award Lovell a new trial, which the sentence would be given after if he is again convicted; or he is not awarded a new trial, in which case he would likely appeal the decision to a higher court.
Lovell’s hearings will continue Tuesday and will take place on every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday until Aug. 27.