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Federal judge changes mind, opens hearing for condemned killer Ron Lafferty

Published: Saturday, Aug. 29 2015 11:54 p.m. MDT

Ron Lafferty () Ron Lafferty ()

SALT LAKE CITY — Sharon Weeks hadn't missed a court hearing for the man who claims God told him to kill her sister nearly 30 years ago — until Thursday.

The St. George woman is upset that she wasn't informed about a two-day mental competency hearing for Ron Lafferty in federal court and that the judge closed it to the public. She learned about it Thursday morning on KSL-TV.

"I was devastated that she wasn't represented today," Weeks said of her older sister, Brenda Lafferty. "I don't like the thought of nobody being there for her."

But Brenda Lafferty will be represented Friday.

In an unexpected reversal, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson decided to open the courtroom Friday after hearing nothing Thursday he deemed as attorney-client privilege or sensitive enough to justify the closure. He asked the attorneys why the hearing was closed and they didn't have a good answer, said Jeff Hunt, a Salt Lake City media attorney.

Hunt received a phone call from Judge Benson alerting him that the hearing will be open.

"I think it should have been open the whole time," Weeks said. "If I would have been shut out (Friday), I would have made a stink."

Weeks, who is nine years younger than Brenda, was 15 when Lafferty killed her sister. She said she thinks and talks about her every day, and doesn't want her forgotten in the courtroom.

"My personal feeling is that I do not want her to be left alone. I don't know if that makes any sense to you. But I feel like that she was left alone when this happened to her, and I refuse to allow her to be alone again. I don't want her being unrepresented. I act as her ears, and her eyes, and her voice," Weeks said.

Claiming they received a revelation from God, Lafferty and his brother Dan Lafferty slashed the throats of their sister-in-law Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, on Pioneer Day in 1984. Dan Lafferty was sentenced to life in prison in 1985, Ron Lafferty to death.

Ron Lafferty, 71, is appealing his death sentence in federal court.

His federal public defenders filed a sealed motion requesting a competency determination for Lafferty in 2009. They argue that mental health assessments show he 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 psychologists to evaluate Lafferty and testify about their findings.

But at the request of Lafferty's attorneys, Benson closed the hearing. The judge also has allowed the lawyers in the case to file at least 42 documents about the killer, including a number of psychological evaluations, under seal.

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.

Benson rejected a petition Hunt filed Wednesday on behalf of the Deseret News, KSL-TV, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Utah Headliners chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists to open the hearing and unseal court records.

Hunt said he's pleased Benson changed his mind. He also anticipates a transcript of Thursday's hearing will be made public, and other documents are likely to opened in the future.

"I think it shows there ought to be good reasons to close the courtroom, and in this case the defense really didn't provide any," he said.

Weeks said she spent all Thursday contacting her victim advocate at the attorney general's office, a law professor, her state senator and others who she thought could get her into Friday's hearing.

"It's our right to know," she said. "(Lafferty) is having a right to privacy right now. I'm not even sure if that's constitutional."

Weeks said there's a different feeling when family members attend Lafferty's hearings. The court is more respectful, she said. But she said it's daunting to stay with his appeals year after year.

"We're rehashing and rehashing things that have been settled and taken care of. Obviously, he has some challenges, but we've already addressed those challenges. I haven't seen any new evidence about how strange his behavior is," she said.

This is not the first time Ron Lafferty's mental capacity has been at issue. It came up during his first trial, as well in his state court appeals.

A federal appeals court overturned his 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 the judge sentenced him to die. Lafferty chose execution by firing squad.

The Utah Supreme Court denied Lafferty's request for a new trial in 2007. The state's high court based its decision, in part, on the question of whether he was mentally competent in 1985. The justices concluded that given several mental evaluations, Lafferty was competent.

The ruling exhausted his state appeal options, and he turned to federal court to stop his execution.

Email: romboy@deseretnews.com Twitter: dennisromboy

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