OGDEN — A former death penalty attorney for Douglas Lovell has received $250,000 in an out-of-court settlement of the civil suit he filed alleging Weber County unfairly fired him after he publicly complained about miserly funding.
The settlement amount is listed in a release-of-claims document obtained by the Standard-Examiner with a public records request after the confidential agreement was reached in March.
Combined with more than $87,000 in legal fees, Weber County’s defense against the suit cost $337,000.
Samuel P. Newton, who represented Lovell in his appeal after he was convicted a second time in the 1985 murder of Joyce Yost of South Ogden, sought additional funding for the appeal and withdrew from the case in 2017.
The county, among other things, accused him of overbilling, questioned the need for contacting and interviewing numerous witnesses in the case, and complained he was meeting with Lovell too often.
The county later terminated his basic public defender contract after Newton criticized county officials for allegedly refusing to fund an adequate defense of Lovell’s death penalty appeal, a constitutional requirement.
The county denied his allegations, and a contract cancellation letter from Commissioner Jim Harvey accused Newton of making false statements detrimental to the county.
Newton sued, and in September last year, U.S. District Judge Howard Nielson Jr. in Salt Lake City denied the county’s motion to dismiss the suit. The judge said the case deserved to continue toward trial.
“The court rejects the proposition that the government can terminate an attorney whom it has engaged to represent indigent criminal defendants based on his or her official communications without further First Amendment scrutiny,” Nielson wrote.
“When such an attorney speaks on behalf of the client he is emphatically not the government’s speaker,” he said.
The case was dismissed in March on agreement of both sides. Terms were not disclosed in court files.
Asked about the settlement, Weber County Attorney Christopher Allred said this week the resolution was “amicable,” but he declined further comment, citing the confidential terms.
Newton, who is now an assistant law professor at the University of Idaho College of Law, did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did his attorney, Tarra Porter of Salt Lake City, or Kristen VanOrman, an insurance pool attorney who represented the county.
The parties released a joint statement Thursday that read, in part:
“Both parties were confident in the strength of their respective positions and the case was headed to trial. After considering the anticipated costs and potential risks of going to trial, the parties decided to mediate. Among other things, the settlement amount took into account the costs of protracted litigation, attorney fees, and the amount Mr. Newton would have received under his appellate contract if it were not terminated early.”
In the release-of-claims document he signed, Newton agreed to keep the settlement confidential and promised not to disparage any of the defendants, who included the three county commissioners at the time: Harvey, Kerry Gibson and James Ebert.
The document further said Newton agreed the settlement “is the compromise of a disputed claim and that payment is not to be construed as an admission of liability” by the defendants.
Weber County is paying for the settlement only indirectly. The county belongs to the Utah Counties Indemnity Pool, which represents the counties in all manner of liability matters.
In addition to the $250,000 payment to Newton, the pool paid the Salt Lake City law firm Strong & Hanni $87,294 for representing the county in the case. The legal fees breakdown was obtained with a records request to the pool, a state-governed entity.
Weber County’s annual premium paid to the pool was $1.28 million for 2021, according to pool records.
After Newton left Lovell’s case, the county hired another death penalty appellate lawyer, Colleen Coebergh, to represent Lovell.
Unlike most of Utah’s other large counties, Weber goes it alone in hiring death penalty defenders. Other large counties pay into a pool that in turn hires capital punishment appeal lawyers for their cases.
Lovell’s latest appeal was unsuccessful, rejected in a February ruling by 2nd District Judge Michael DiReda. The case is now back before the Utah Supreme Court.
An Ogden jury in 2015 convicted Lovell, now 63, of aggravated murder and sentenced him to death.