Ralph LeRoy Menzies

It has been 21 years since Maurine Hunsaker was brutally strangled and had her throat slit. But the case of the man convicted of killing her is still before the courts, and an unusual question has emerged: Can a court appoint a lawyer to represent someone in a death penalty case if that lawyer is unwilling to do so?

Ralph LeRoy Menzies, 49, was convicted in 1986 of murdering Hunsaker and was sentenced to death by now-retired Judge Raymond Uno in 1988. There was no "life without parole" option on the books at that time, so the judge had to choose between capital punishment or a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole.

Hunsaker, a 26-year-old mother of four from Kearns, was kidnapped from the convenience store/gas station where she worked. She was strangled and had her throat slit, and her body was found two days later tied to a tree in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Since then, Menzies has been through an appeal and a number of different lawyers. He is now seeking post-conviction relief in state district court, challenging both his conviction and sentence.

One lawyer who represented him was deemed to have done poor work in the case and, more recently, another withdrew.

At this point, Menzies has no attorney. But the Utah Attorney General's Office and the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers are in court over the question of an unwilling lawyer being appointed by 3rd District Judge Stephen Roth to represent the inmate.

A key problem is that the state Division of Finance caps the amount it will pay lawyers at $37,500.

Troy Booher, who is representing the UACDL, maintains that the work involved in post-conviction proceedings in a death penalty case would take so much time that a qualified lawyer would lose money representing Menzies.

Assistant attorney general Thomas Brunker disagrees. He contends the UACDL's view of how such cases should progress is contrary to Utah law, and the kinds of funds the agency is talking about would not be necessary under the appropriate standard for litigating such cases.

The judge has asked both sides to provide legal briefs regarding the narrow threshold issue of funding matters and set Nov. 16 for oral arguments.

E-mail: lindat@desnews.com