Attorneys for death-row inmate Ron Lafferty met with a federal judge behind closed doors on Tuesday, but neither his attorneys nor the judge are saying why.
Typically in the justice system meeting with a judge without the other side present, or ex-parte communication, is forbidden.
However, Lafferty's attorneys filed a motion last month to request the closed-door meeting with U.S. District Judge Dee Benson. According to the motion, the meeting was to "discuss a request involving privileged information" but cited no law justifying the meeting.
Lafferty has petitioned the federal court to review his motion to stay his execution. Lafferty and his brother Dan were convicted in separate trials for the 1984 Utah County murders of their sister-in-law Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica. Ron Lafferty was found guilty and sentenced to death, while his brother was found guilty by another jury and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Ron Lafferty initially won a retrial, but in 1997 a second jury found him guilty and sentenced him to die. Last year, the Utah Supreme Court denied Lafferty's request for a new trial, based in part on the question of whether he was mentally competent back in 1985 to stand trial for murder. The state's high court concluded that given several mental evaluations, Lafferty was competent. The ruling essentially exhausted his state appeal options and he is now asking the federal court to stay his execution.
The Utah Attorney General's Office objected to Lafferty's request for an in-chambers meeting with Benson, pointing out that no law was cited justifying the meeting, which shut out state attorneys from attending.
Assistant Utah Attorney General Thomas Brunker said as far as he knows, Lafferty's attorneys can only request an ex-parte meeting to discuss a request for government funding to help in Lafferty's defense. In such a case, having the state sit in on the meeting could reveal defense strategies, Brunker said.
"We're not saying that anything inappropriate happened, but as a matter of policy we oppose this because this privilege has been abused in the past," Brunker said.
When asked why he did not cite the appropriate law in his motion, defense attorney Ken Murray said he did not feel it was appropriate to comment on the matter. Benson said he could not talk about Tuesday's hearing.Brunker said he felt the motion for the meeting should have been denied and Lafferty's attorneys should have been made to cite the appropriate law in a new motion.