It is critical that the public and the news media be able to freely access court records and attend court hearings, particularly in a case like this where the state is seeking to impose the death penalty. —Salt Lake City media attorney Jeff Hunt
SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge opened dozens of court documents in the case of death-row inmate Ron Lafferty, granting a petition the media filed last year to unseal the records.
Many of them contain psychiatrists' opinions about the condemned killer's mental health and legal arguments over whether he was competent to move ahead with a federal review of his case. In all, U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson opened 69 documents and 17 formerly secret docket entries.
The order came a day after Benson found Lafferty does not suffer from a mental illness and has the ability to communicate with and help his attorneys prepare his case. Lafferty wants the court to review his conviction and death sentence. He has exhausted his appeals in state court.
Salt Lake City media attorney Jeff Hunt said access promotes accountability and confidence in the judicial process.
"It is critical that the public and the news media be able to freely access court records and attend court hearings, particularly in a case like this where the state is seeking to impose the death penalty," he said.
Hunt petitioned the court last October to open the records for the Deseret News, KSL-TV, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Utah Headliners chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Lafferty's attorneys asked Benson to seal the file when it sought a competency determination for him in 2009. They argued that they shouldn't have to disclose attorney-client information, attorney work product, private mental health information about Lafferty and lines of investigation and evidence.
"Unfortunately, it appears that closure became the default mode for court filings in this case relating to Lafferty’s competency," Hunt said. "That is contrary to the First Amendment, which presumes that court records and proceedings will be open to the public."
Claiming God directed them, Lafferty and his brother Dan Lafferty slashed the throats of their sister-in-law Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, in 1984. Both were convicted of the murders in separate trials.
Dan Lafferty was sentenced to life in prison, Ron Lafferty to death.