The Utah Attorney General's Office is seeking sanctions against attorneys for death row inmate Michael Anthony Archuleta because the state contends the pair violated a legal rule in their appeal filings.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Brunker told the Utah Supreme Court Thursday that attorneys Lynn Donaldson and Ed Brass incorrectly included in a 120-claim petition before a district judge 43 claims that were not supported by evidence or law.
Brunker said the attorneys had 21 days to correct the errors but did not do so. The rule, termed "Rule 11," exists because "it protects judicial integrity."
In particular, Brunker said the two men did not disclose which claims had already been denied in state court or were not supported either by the law or case law.
However, Richard Mauro, the attorney for Donaldson, argued that in death penalty cases, lawyers are required to put forth virtually all the facts they can that might assist their clients.
Failing to introduce and preserve such information could jeopardize the appeals, especially if the state appeals process moves to the federal court system, which has some differences in the way it handles post-conviction appeals.
"If you don't preserve those things properly in state court, you may not be able to raise those in federal court."
Mauro said there have been cases elsewhere when claims were not preserved for one defendant in a death penalty case and that man was executed. Meanwhile, his co-defendant had a lawyer who did preserve all appeals claims and that man was given a lesser sentence.
Brass, representing himself, suggested that the high court not consider possible Rule 11 violations while cases are still pending.
"We did everything we could to protect our client," Brass said. "This puts us in the middle of litigation at odds with our client."
Brass said the stakes are so high in death penalty cases that lawyers must do everything they can for their clients but, of course, without doing anything unethical.
He also cited an out-of-state case where a convicted man's lawyer did not raise every claim possible in a post-conviction appeal; the government then took the position that the man had waived his right to raise these, and he was subsequently executed.
"That's our nightmare," Brass said.
Outside the Supreme Court chambers, Mauro called the action "an attack against lawyers" and said seeking sanctions in this case has made other highly qualified lawyers stay away from representing death row inmates.
"If you don't have competent lawyers, then there's the risk you execute an innocent man," he said.
Mauro also underscored the fact that the judge who was handling the matter in district court, 4th District Judge Donald Eyre, issued a 17-page ruling that said he did not believe Donaldson or Brass did anything wrong.
Brunker later said this is not a personal attack but part of a broader effort to assure honesty in litigation and require lawyers to file only relevant appeal issues. If other information is included in an appeal document, there should be a notation if an item cannot be supported by law.
"We want to use it to curb abusive petitions," he said, stating that it takes hours of research to address death row appeals and ultimately slows down the legal process. He said another death row inmate, Von Lester Taylor, recently filed a 500-page petition.Archuleta was convicted in 1990 of raping, torturing and killing Southern Utah State College student Gordon Ray Church in 1988.