Self-proclaimed prophet Ronald Watson Lafferty has a constitutional right to be sane before he faces a firing squad June 24 for the murders of his brother's wife and her baby girl.
Both Utah law and the U.S. Constitution require that convicted murderers be mentally competent in order to understand the reason they are being put to death before they can be executed.But is Lafferty incompetent? Assistant Utah Attorney General Sandra Sjogren doesn't think so, despite Lafferty's verbal outbursts last week during sentencing before 4th District Judge Boyd Park and his chair-throwing May 5 during an interview with defense attorneys at the state prison.
"A person who is incompetent has a constitutional right not to be executed," Sjogren said. "But the fact he acted out in court does not make him crazy."
Lafferty's competence was at issue prior to his trial for the July 1984 murders of his sister-in-law, Brenda Lafferty, and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica. While held in the Utah County Jail, Lafferty repeatedly assaulted inmates, guards and his brother, Dan, and attempted to take his own life by hanging himself.
The brothers, who claimed God commanded them to commit the murders, both were convicted of the murders. Dan received two life sentences while Ron was given death.
Lafferty's competence was central to his initial appeal to the Utah Supreme Court. Defense attorneys also expressed interest in broaching that same issue in further appeals, but public defender Michael Esplin said Lafferty believes he is mentally competent and refuses to raise the issue.
Lafferty fired Esplin and co-counsel Gary Weight last week, claiming he wants to represent himself.
In effect, Lafferty has put himself into a "Catch-22" or no-win situation. If he is incompetent, all of his decisions - including firing his lawyers - are called into question.
Defense attorneys generally request competency hearings, but Esplin said anyone involved with the case who questions Lafferty's competence could request a hearing.
Esplin said he expects someone to request a hearing. If not, he said, he may do so himself. He and Weight have not made the request so far, however, because they don't want to jeopardize their relationship with Lafferty even though they doubt his competence, Esplin said.
"He doesn't think he's incompetent," he said. "That's where we have the problem. A hearing depends on his decision. If he doesn't want to appeal (his execution), then there should be a competency evaluation."
A judge could order a hearing as well. That's what happened recently in the case of convicted child killer Arthur Gary Bishop. The Utah Supreme Court ordered the competency proceeding after Bishop said he wanted to fire his attorneys and prepare to die. He was ultimately found sane and is scheduled for execution June 10.
And though the state could request a hearing, Sjogren said she doesn't think Lafferty's behavior means he's incompetent.
Utah County Attorney Steve Killpack said he doesn't plan to request a competency hearing. Park was unavailable for comment, but a court clerk said the judge had not discussed requesting a hearing.
Esplin said Lafferty would rather die than spend the rest of his life in prison.
"But he's also said he's not going to give up and be shot," said Esplin, who met with Lafferty this week. "He has not decided what to do. But nothing he does at this point surprises me."
Esplin said he expects Lafferty to decide this week whether to fight his execution and whether to seek legal help in doing so.
"He'll be making his decision on our representation of him, the nature of that representation, and whether to proceed by way of an appeal," he said.
For legal purposes, a person is judged incompetent if he is suffering from a diagnosed mental illness that prevents him from understanding his situation. Before Lafferty's trial, for example, then-4th District Judge Robert Bullock found Lafferty competent, even though three experts judged him to be suffering from religious delusions. The judge ruled that the experts had failed to show that Lafferty's psychiatric problems prevented him from understanding the consequences of his actions.
Similarly, Sjogren argues, if Lafferty were to choose death, even if that decision were based on religious beliefs, that choice does not necessarily indicate incompetence.
"A lot of people think death is a way to meet their maker and they're willing to accept death for that reason," Sjogren said. "But that doesn't mean they're crazy. They must show some underlying mental disorder, not just religious delusions."
Sjogren said preparing for a competency hearing is time-consuming and would almost certainly mean a delay in the execution date if a hearing is ordered. Meahwhile, she is proceeding as though Lafferty will be executed June 24.
Though Lafferty still has plenty of options - an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court or the state district court or even a commutation hearing before the Utah Board of Pardons - he must pursue them. Sjogren thinks Lafferty just isn't interested in further appeals.
"I don't see Lafferty doing anything to stop it," she said. "And unless he does, we'll go ahead."