Whether Paul Christopher Allen goes to trial next January may depend on how soon the Utah Supreme Court decides a case now before it.
Earlier this month, 2nd District Judge Glen R. Dawson issued a written opinion that would allow 10 out of 12 jurors to decide whether Allen, 29, should spend life in prison without the possibility of parole if he is convicted of arranging the Aug. 28, 1996, murder of his wife.Previously, a unanimous decision by jurors was required.
Allen's attorneys are appealing the issue to the Supreme Court, arguing that the 1997 law upon which Dawson's decision was based should not apply to Allen because, among other things, it would increase his punishment and decrease the state's burden of proof.
The state's highest court is currently hearing a similar matter in another murder case, and historically, the court has been willing to join similar cases on appeal, said lead defense attorney Ron Yengich.
But if the court fails to make a decision by the start of Allen's three-week trial, now scheduled for Jan. 11, Yengich said he will ask Dawson to stay the trial until a decision is made.
Prosecutors, who have agreed not to pursue the death penalty although Allen remains charged with capital murder, dislike the idea of having to postpone the trial.
"We take a firm position to stay on schedule," said Davis County deputy county attorney Carvel Harward. "Given the age of the case . . . we should all put our best effort to keep on track."
Harward feels that the trial could go forward even if the court has not reached a decision. Individual votes from jurors would remain on the record, and Allen's sentence would be based on the Supreme Court's eventual decision.
However, although Yengich said his team "should be virtually trial ready by the first of December," he believes jurors could be affected by their sentencing options, and they need to be instructed ac-cord-ing-ly.
"The reality is, jurors have that in the back of their minds," he said.
Under the old statute, a single vote against life in prison without parole would result in a verdict of only life in prison.
Defense attorneys had argued that the 1997 law, which can be retroactive if it applies to procedural rather than substantive matters in a case, should not be applied in Allen's case because it would increase the likelihood of Allen getting a more severe sentence if he is convicted, and it alters the degree of proof prosecutors would have to present during the trial.
But Dawson disagreed, stating in his written opinion that Allen faces changes "in the manner by which an appropriate sentence is selected" and not "in the alternative punishments faces under the capital sentencing statue."
Also, requiring "a less-than-unanimous verdict in order to impose a punishment of life without parole, has only made a procedural change in the sentencing determination, rather than a substantive one.
"While this change arguably reduces the difficulty of obtaining a punishment of life without parole, it does not reduce the State's burden of proof," Dawson wrote.
Allen is accused of offering Joseph Sergious Wright, 26, $30,000 to kill his wife, Jill Allen, who was beaten and strangled to death in the couple's North Salt Lake apartment. Wright and George Anthony Taylor, 29, confessed to taking part in either organizing or carrying out the crime and have been sentenced to prison.
Allen's next court hearing is scheduled for Nov. 25.