SALT LAKE CITY — An attorney suing Weber County for canceling his indigent defense contract is calling attention to derogatory email comments officials made about a Utah Supreme Court ruling and the public expense of paying for death row appeals.
Samuel Newton filed a U.S. District Court suit in January 2018 against the county, alleging his free speech rights were violated when the county commission pulled his contract after he complained publicly about miserly capital defense funding.
In June this year, the county filed a motion asking the court to dismiss Newton's suit. It said Newton's contract was canceled for "misrepresentations and falsehood," not because he sought more money to defend murder convict Douglas Lovell and complained to a judge and the media.
But in counter arguments filed this month, Newton's attorneys contended county officials were "unhappy that Newton had exposed its unconstitutional funding system and was making it the poster child for abolishing the entire death penalty."
Weber is one of a handful of counties that do not pay into the state's indigent defense fund. Newton asserts the county covering such expenses itself imperils the 6th Amendment guarantee of adequate death penalty appeal representation.
Karra Porter, Newton's attorney in the civil suit, zeroed in on comments made by County Attorney Chris Allred and David Wilson, who at the time headed the civil division of the county attorney's office.
In a document filed Sept. 6, Porter referred to the April court deposition of Allred and his explanation of comments he and Wilson made in email chains during the Newton controversy in 2017.
Emails show that Wilson, responding to a newspaper story about Lovell's defense and the Newton dispute July 17, 2017, said, “All of this for a defendant who admitted killing a person and then a witness. The world must laugh at our stupidity.”
Allred responded in his email, “I’m really sick of this BS! I at least want to expose just how much Sam is getting paid for these two cases at taxpayer expense.”
Another attorney in Allred's office then was assigned to find out how much the state paid Newton in an unrelated death penalty case, that of Floyd Maestas in Salt Lake County.
Later that day, Wilson emailed regarding Lovell, “So we have never reached that point since the Utah Supreme Court doesn’t want this admitted murderer to die.”
County officials, Porter wrote, "were angry or embarrassed at having their unconstitutional death penalty system exposed, especially given (Wilson's) derogation of the Utah Supreme Court’s protection of Lovell’s constitutional rights."
She said county officials tracked media coverage and "sought to retaliate" against Newton for unflattering news stories and editorials.
In Allred's deposition, Porter asked Allred if Wilson's comments raised "red flags" and whether he considered removing Wilson from having any role with funding the Lovell case.
"Did it cause you any concern that Mr. Wilson's personal views about the death penalty, at least relating to Doug Lovell, were influencing his actions?" she asked.
"I know that he takes the Constitution and the obligation of our office very seriously," Allred said. "I didn't doubt for one minute that he would do anything that would intentionally or otherwise run afoul of his constitutional obligations."
Porter then asked, "Did it cause you any concerns to see someone involved in the decision-making process in a death penalty appeal to use words such as 'since the Utah Supreme Court doesn't want this admitted murderer to die'?"
"It did not cause me concern," Allred said. "It sounded like Mr. Wilson was blowing off some steam. I think that expresses some frustration with the Supreme Court. I don't think it maligns the Supreme Court."
Allred said he and his attorneys were reacting to Newton "submitting requests for 700 hours that aren't very well supported, suggesting in the newspapers that he couldn't put food on the table if we wouldn't pay him what he was asking for, suggesting that the county wasn't paying him and the reason was for some sort of nefarious purposes ..."
Allred said Newton "suggested that he wanted nobody to ask him any questions about money anymore, which suggested that he wanted an open checkbook. That was a concern."
Allred noted Lovell's case has been going on since 1985, when Joyce Yost of South Ogden was raped and later killed.
"It's been going on for many, many years," Allred said. "I know that's a cause of frustration, not only for Mr. Wilson, but some people in general feel that that's problematic that the legal system takes so long to accomplish things."
Lovell was convicted in a second trial in 2015 and sentenced to death again.
In 2nd District Court this month and next, a judge is hearing testimony and arguments on whether Lovell received ineffective assistance of counsel during his most recent jury trial.
After Newton withdrew from the case in 2017, the county hired Colleen Coebergh to represent Lovell.
The outcome of Newton's civil suit is now in the hands of U.S. District Judge Howard C. Nielson Jr.