SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge rejected a media petition to open a mental competency hearing scheduled Thursday for one of Utah's most infamous killers and longest-standing death row inmates.
The closure follows a pattern of secrecy going back at least four years since Ron Lafferty started appealing his death sentence in federal court. U.S. District Judge Dee Benson has allowed lawyers in the case to file at least 42 documents concerning the killer, including a number of psychological evaluations, under seal.
In his ruling, Benson wrote that the media has had four years to challenge the closures but hasn't done so until now.
"The motion to unseal the competency proceedings and attend the evidentiary hearing, filed on the eve of the hearing itself, is untimely," he wrote.
Yet there was no timely public notice that the hearings would be closed. Lafferty's two-day competency hearing was not marked as closed on the court calendar when it was set in April. Benson attributed that to a clerical error that the court corrected on Monday, just three days before the hearing.
"Court hearings and records may be closed only in the most extreme circumstances. No such circumstances exist here," said Salt Lake media attorney Jeff Hunt.
"Given the importance of this issue — the basis upon which the court will decide whether a death row inmate is competent or not to assist in his legal proceedings — the public has a compelling interest in keeping the competency hearing and related court records open," he said.
Hunt petitioned the court Wednesday to open the hearing and unseal court records on behalf of the Deseret News, KSL-TV, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Utah Headliners chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
"Now that Lafferty, who has twice been convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death, has put his mental competency at issue in this proceeding, the court’s adjudication of that issue is a matter of fundamental importance and legitimate public interest and scrutiny," Hunt argued.
Hunt called Benson's ruling disappointing. But he noted the judge deferred ruling on whether to open the sealed documents, including a transcript of the closed competency hearing.
"It's not the equivalent of being able to attend and observe the proceedings, but it's what we're left with and what we'll continue to fight for," Hunt said.
Lafferty's federal public defenders filed a sealed motion requesting a competency determination for Lafferty in 2009. They argue that a preliminarily evaluation showed Lafferty, 71, is not able to rationally communicate or assist his lawyers. The state disagreed and believes Lafferty understands the legal process and is able to provide information necessary to litigate the case.
Both sides hired experts to evaluate Lafferty yet again.
Lafferty's lawyers argued in court documents that they shouldn't have to disclose attorney-client information, attorney work product and lines of investigation and evidence.
The Utah Attorney General's Office, including capital appeals division chief Tom Brunker, contended Lafferty did not show a need to seal documents or close hearings. Brunker said the state believes the hearings should be open, though he has filed sealed documents to comply with Benson's order.
Attorneys for Lafferty did not respond to telephone calls and emails for comment.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that federal courts should not automatically suspend post-conviction challenges by death row inmates who are mentally unable to help their lawyers. The decision didn't close the door on a stay but said it shouldn't be indefinite.
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