SALT LAKE CITY — Weber County says it fired a death penalty appeal lawyer for "misrepresentations and falsehood," not because he sought more money to defend murder convict Doug Lovell and complained to a judge and the media.
In a January 2018 U.S. District Court lawsuit, indigent appeals attorney Sam Newton charged the county violated his First Amendment right of free speech by terminating his contract more than a year early.
He also argued the county was miserly in its funding of capital appeals, which are guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment.
But in a June 14 motion for summary judgment, Kristin VanOrman, an attorney representing the county, urged Judge Robert Shelby to dismiss the suit. She contended the county did not violate Newton's freedom of speech and planned to cancel Newton's contract regardless.
Newton and the county jousted through 2017 over his requests for more funding to handle Lovell's latest round of appeals. Lovell was sentenced to death for the 1985 killing of Joyce Yost of South Ogden and the case has been on appeal ever since.
During a 2nd District Court hearing before Judge Michael DiReda and in newspaper interviews in 2017, Newton asserted the county was inhibiting his efforts to mount a constitutionally adequate appeal for Lovell.
After spending most of an initial $75,000 budgeted by the county, Newton asked for another $75,000 to $105,000. The county commission and Weber County Attorney Chris Allred balked and the commission offered Newton $15,000 at least to start.
As part of that negotiation, the county questioned his billing practices and asked why he needed to spend so much time in discussions with Lovell.
Newton then withdrew from the case, saying the county had backed him into an impossible choice. Without more funding, he said, "Zealous advocacy for Mr. Lovell on this case may jeopardize my livelihood."
In that same court hearing, Lovell complained to DiReda that the county had underfunded his defense through several sets of indigent attorneys since his first conviction more than 25 years ago.
Ironically, Newton was seeking funding to press his appeal over the alleged ineffective counsel by Lovell's defense attorney during his 2015 retrial.
"This past year you have made various representations to the media and to the court that have been untruthful and harmful to the county's reputation," County Commissioner Jim Harvey said in an Oct. 26, 2017, letter to Newton canceling the contract.
In her court filing last week, VanOrman said Newton's public airing of the billing disputes damaged the county because after he quit the Lovell case county officials had to scramble to find a replacement.
"The county had to pay the new attorney a premium, presumably due to (Newton's) comments," VanOrman said.
She argued the county did not violate Newton's First Amendment rights because his speech was delivered as part of his official duties and thereby was not protected.
And even if the federal court found his speech was impinged, the three county commissioners and Allred are protected by governmental immunity, which shields public officials and employees from civil damages, she said.
The county made a good-faith effort to meet Newton's requests, eventually funding $33,000 beyond the original $75,000, VanOrman said.
Newton, whose practice is now in Kalispell, Montana, said stress over the funding battle caused him health problems.
In the 2017 Ogden court hearing, Newton said he earlier had been denied $100,000 in attorney fees in Salt Lake County while representing killer Floyd Maestas.
"That ended up resulting in a lot of stress for me," he said. "I ended up having a cardiac event because of that."
In his suit against Weber County, Newton alleges he was treated unfairly "for calling attention ... to important issues in how Utah handles death penalty cases."
Weber, Salt Lake and three other counties do not contribute to a statewide indigent defense fund, instead shouldering Sixth Amendment obligations themselves. The self-funding by counties leads to conflicts such as the tussle involving Newton, he alleged.
His suit pointed out that Harvey's letter did not cite any dissatisfaction with Newton's performance but was rather "in retaliation for unspecified statements" he had made publicly.
VanOrman's motion said Newton's statements in the Ogden court hearing were ethically questionable and contained "misrepresentations and falsehood."
In an affidavit filed in connection with Newton's lawsuit, expert witness Marissa Sandall-Barrus said she had been hired in an earlier part of the appeal process to replace another expert "who had quit for non-payment."
Sandall-Barrus said she agreed to work on the case "against my better judgment ... because Weber County has a reputation for non-payment."
Newton's controversy isn't the first time an indigent appeals attorney has been axed by Weber County.
In 2012, veteran Ogden attorney Randy Richards and Newton both worked under contract for the county on indigent appeals.
In his private practice, Richards at the time was representing Matthew David Stewart, accused of killing an Ogden police officer in a drug bust shootout.
According to Standard-Examiner coverage at the time, the county canceled Richards's indigent contract.