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Law Office of Samuel P. Newton
Samuel Newton

OGDEN — The former attorney for a death row inmate is suing Weber County, claiming his contract was terminated because he publicly criticized the lack of funding for his client's appeal.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, appellate attorney Samuel Newton claims his right to free speech was violated when he was fired in apparent retaliation for his remarks.

Newton was representing Douglas Lovell, 60, who was appealing a death sentence for murdering 39-year-old Joyce Yost. Lovell killed the South Ogden woman to keep her from testifying in court that he had kidnapped and raped her.

Lovell first pleaded guilty to murdering Yost in 1985 but was spared the death penalty on the condition that he lead authorities to her remains. When he failed to do so, he was sentenced to die in 1993. In 2010 the Utah Supreme Court allowed Lovell to withdraw his guilty plea and ordered a new trial. He was found guilty by a jury in March 2015.

As part of Lovell's appeal, Newton sought additional funding to thoroughly investigate whether Lovell's previous attorney had failed him at trial, and whether The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints interfered in the case by limiting what LDS bishops who had interacted with Lovell behind bars could say on his behalf on the witness stand during the sentencing phase of the trial.

Newton was granted $15,000 of the $37,000 he requested for the effort, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit notes that Weber County is one of five counties in Utah that does not rely on the state's indigent defense fund, but funds defense efforts for indigent defendants on its own. In January 2017, the county renewed its contract with Newton.

In June, Newton asked to be removed from the case, suggesting in the filing that Weber County was underfunding Lovell's appeal and that the strain of the dispute with the county was compromising Newton's health, according the lawsuit. The motion was granted in August, and Newton continued to speak publicly and in the media about the dispute as well as his belief that the death penalty should be abolished.

Though Newton had been removed from the Lovell case, his contract to represent indigent defendants in Weber County through the end of 2019 was still in place. The county severed that contract in October, claiming Newton had "made various representations to the media and to the court that have been untruthful and harmful to the county's reputation."

The lawsuit claims the termination of Newton's contract based on statements he made under the protection of the First Amendment violated his constitutional rights.

"Unspecified 'harm' to a county's 'reputation' would not outweigh the importance of an independent contractor's First Amendment rights, particularly when the speech involved rights of a third party and a case unrelated to Newton's general appellate contract," the lawsuit states.

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The claim goes on to emphasize that "the speech for which Weber County punished Newton was on a matter of public concern, relating to matters of political, social and economic concern to the community."

Newton's lawsuit is seeking unspecified monetary damages for Newton and his law partners for "economic loss, emotional distress and other personal injury resulting from the violation of their constitutional rights."

Lovell has since been appointed a new attorney, Colleen Coebergh. His next hearing in the case is scheduled for Feb. 27.

The Weber County Attorney's Office did not respond to calls for comment on the lawsuit. No hearings have been scheduled.