Lawsuit against Weber County highlights larger issue in Utah court system

Friday , February 09, 2018 - 5:15 AM

OGDEN — A lawsuit filed against Weber County and all three of its county commissioners points to a much larger issue in Utah concerning court-appointed attorneys for death penalty cases. 

Samuel Newton, a Montana-based attorney, claims in a lawsuit filed Jan. 21 that Weber County terminated his contract after he expressed frustrations with the county to the court and local media outlets. 

Newton was contracted by the county to defend Doug Lovell — a Weber County man appealing his 2015 death sentence — at the time of his termination. 

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Newton’s lawsuit claims his firing was a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech. He told media outlets during several interviews in 2017 that the county was not fulfilling their contract obligations by failing to pay him for his work on the Lovell case. 

Weber County Attorney Chris Allred said in an email that the county, “takes its obligation to provide for indigent defense services very seriously.” 

Newton’s claims that the county had not paid him are untrue, he said in the email, and Newton made multiple “misrepresentations” to the press and to the court.

“These misrepresentations were a major factor in the county’s decision to terminate his contract,” Allred wrote. 

Weber County commissioners Jim Harvey, Kerry Gibson and James Ebert did not return requests for comment. 

At the center of the lawsuit is an issue that impacts Utah as a whole: finding and appropriately paying qualified attorneys for death penalty cases.

Nearly all Utah counties contribute money to a trust managed by the Indigent Defense Commission, to be used for anyone accused of a capital crime who can’t afford an attorney.

But Weber, Salt Lake, Summit, Utah and Wasatch counties aren’t participants in that program. Weber County puts the County Attorney’s Office in charge of finding, contracting and paying for the defendant’s attorney. The county commission votes to approve those expenditures. 

The Indigent Defense Fund has paid for the defense counsel in 29 cases since 2005, according to state documents obtained by the Standard-Examiner through an public records request. Some of the cases are still active but, so far, none of them have received the death penalty.

Newton’s lawsuit accuses the non-participating counties of failing to fulfill the obligation to the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees legal council to all who need it.

The beleaguered attorney isn’t the only one to take aim at this system.

Two reports published in 2015 excoriated Utah’s handling of its public defender system, pointing that 48 states fund legal defense services through the state and have a state-level oversight to make sure counties handle cases properly. Pennsylvania is the only other state that handles defense for the poor like Utah.

The next legislative session, state lawmakers passed a bill to improve the Utah public defender system. That measure wasn’t apparently good enough. In July 2016 the Utah branch of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in federal court, alleging the state wasn’t holding up its obligation to the Sixth Amendment. 

According to online court documents, the ACLU’s class action lawsuit against the state is ongoing. 

MORE DEMAND THAN SUPPLY

Newton’s lawsuit also points out the state often can’t easily find qualified attorneys for death penalty appeal cases, such as Lovell’s. 

The most recent death penalty conviction came in 2008, when Salt Lake City man Floyd Maestas — who was represented by Newton — was given the death penalty for killing a 75-year-old woman in her home in 2004. 

According to court records, Newton asked the judge to be removed from the Maestas case, but the court rejected the request. 

In Lovell’s case, Newton filed a motion to withdraw from the case in August 2017, claiming in the under-oath document that the county was not paying him and the stress was causing health issues. The motion was accepted by Judge Michael DiReda and Newton was officially removed from the case on Aug. 29, 2017.

In the following months, several articles were published in the Standard-Examiner and the Salt Lake Tribune regarding Newton’s dismissal and the difficulty of finding qualified council to take his place. At the same time, an attorney was needed for Maestas’, who was seeking post-conviction relief, according to a Salt Lake Tribune article.

On Oct. 26, Newton was appellate contract with Weber County was terminated, according to the lawsuit. 

Three days after, the Salt Lake Tribune published an op-ed piece that Newton wrote. In the article, Newton said in regards to the capital case system that “the system is full of errors,” and he also said that almost every attorney who has taken a death penalty case has suffered “extreme personal loss.” 

Newton’s lawsuit through the Utah District Court in Salt Lake City is ongoing. 

Lovell’s appeals case is also ongoing, and the next hearing regarding the case is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 27 in Ogden. 

Contact reporter Jacob Scholl by email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Jacob_Scholl.

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