SALT LAKE CITY — Condemned killer Ron Lafferty seemed at times perturbed and bemused during a federal court hearing Friday where lawyers and psychiatrists explored the inner workings of his mind.
At one point, he extended a middle finger as Dr. Michael First testified that Lafferty suffers from psychotic and cognitive disorders. A few minutes later, he flashed a thumbs-up when First said Lafferty believes his lawyers are colluding with the government and religion.
Lafferty also twirled his index finger around the side of his head, the known sign for crazy.
Whether Utah's longest-standing death row inmate has a mental illness is a matter of conflicting conclusions among mental health experts who have evaluated the 71-year-old man.
Lafferty's defense team contends he is not competent to help them petition for a federal review of his conviction and death sentence in state court.
Claiming a revelation from God, Lafferty and his brother, Dan Lafferty, slashed the throats of his sister-in-law Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, in 1984. Dan Lafferty is serving a life sentence.
The state concedes Ron Lafferty is difficult for his lawyers to communicate with but that he understands the legal process and is able to assist them, said Tom Brunker, assistant attorney general.
The decision rests with U.S. District Judge Dee Benson. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this year gives the judge little room to suspend the court proceedings at this stage even if he finds Lafferty incompetent.
"The case law is pretty clear that he doesn't have a right to be competent and the case should move forward," Brunker said.
Lawyers have yet to argue the merits of Lafferty's legal challenge in federal court, including his claim of double jeopardy. Brunker said he anticipates at least two to three more years of litigation.
Because Benson closed the first day of the hearing, Thursday's testimony isn't known. He opened Friday's hearing after deeming there was no sensitive information that would warrant closure. He also will consider unsealing numerous court documents in light of a media petition to open the proceedings and make the records public.
Lawyers spent Friday redirecting questions to First and Dr. Noel Gardner, both of whom testified at length the day before.
Other than the hand gestures, a fit-looking Lafferty sat calmly during the hearing. Wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and sporting a bushy dishwater mustache, he wrote on a yellow legal pad and talked often with his legal team.
Gardner, whose history of evaluating Lafferty goes back to the mid-1990s, testified that Lafferty has a narcissistic personality and extreme religious and political views but isn't delusional or psychotic. Lafferty believes he had a special role in a pre-Earth life and sees himself as "one mighty and strong," he said.
Lafferty's sense of humor, he said, doesn't mesh with someone suffering psychosis.
"Mr. Lafferty is somebody who loves to play with words," Gardner said.
Lafferty, he said, has the ability to work with his attorneys but isn't willing because he sees them as "rotten snakes" and "traitors."
"I don't have the desire because I don't trust them," Gardner said Lafferty told him during one of his interviews.
First testified that a lack of oxygen to Lafferty's brain when he hung himself in December 1984 — five months after the killing — caused his cognitive and psychotic disorders. He has a "constellation" of symptoms, including delusions and hallucinations, that persist to this day, he said.
Lafferty, he said, has no ability for linear thinking, and when he goes off track, he relies on others to get him back. And even when he's back on track, the goal isn't met, he said.
"There's no behavioral technique to fix this problem," said First, a Columbia University professor.
After being shut out from Thursday's hearing, Brenda Lafferty's younger sister Sharon Weeks attended Friday.
"It's nothing I haven't heard before," she said afterward, estimating she has attended as many as 30 hearings over the years. "I'm fairly confident the outcome will be the same as in the past."4 comments on this story
A federal appeals court overturned Lafferty's conviction in 1991 because the wrong standard was used to determine his mental competency for trial. He underwent another round of psychological assessments and a state judge found him able to stand trial again in 1996.
A jury again convicted him and sentenced him to die. Lafferty chose death by firing squad.
"I would like to see Ron Lafferty fulfill the sentence that was handed to him," Weeks said. "Yes, execution."