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Ron Lafferty

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge will consider whether death-row inmate Ron Lafferty is entitled to be mentally competent during the condemned killer's continuing appeal to avoid a firing squad.

U.S. District Judge Dee Benson ruled last week that evidence Lafferty has presented so far "raises enough of an issue" about his legal right to competence during federal court proceedings that further argument is in order. That evidence, however, and the state's response to it remain sealed.

Tom Brunker, an assistant Utah attorney general who handles capital cases, said the seal prevents him from discussing the matter. One of Lafferty's lawyers did not return a telephone call and another was not available Friday.

The right to competence is an ongoing issue nationally, Brunker said. There's no question criminal defendants have a right to be competent at trial. But he said the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled whether that extends to the federal appeals process.

Lafferty's attorneys filed a sealed motion requesting a competency determination for Lafferty last December. They say the federal court hearings must be delayed until the question of his competence is decided. They argue that an evaluation by Xavier F. Amador shows preliminarily that Lafferty is not able to rationally communicate or assist his defense counsel, according to Benson's order issued Thursday.

The state disagrees with the finding, and believes Lafferty understands the legal process and shows that he is able to provide information necessary to litigate the case, according to the court document.

Amador, a Columbia University professor and psychologist whose resume includes the Unabomber and Elizabeth Smart cases, is scheduled to evaluate Lafferty, 68, again this week.

Claiming they were directed by God, 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. Ron Lafferty was sentenced to death in 1985; Dan Lafferty to life in prison.

A federal appeals court overturned Ron Lafferty's conviction in 1991 because the wrong standard was used to determine his mental competency to stand trial. He underwent a competency evaluation in 1994, had another trial in 1996 and was again found guilty and sentenced 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 essentially exhausted his state appeal options, and he then turned to the federal court in an effort to stop his execution.

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