OGDEN — A former prison bishop for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told an Ogden courtroom Friday that it was allegedly recommended to him by those above him in the church that it would be better if he did not testify in the 2015 retrial of a death row inmate.
The former bishop was one of three who worked with convicted killer Douglas Lovell at the Utah State Prison who were called to testify Friday morning in an Ogden courtroom.
The testimony is part of a larger question as to whether or not the church interfered in any way during Lovell’s murder trial in 2015.
The former bishop, Dr. John “Jack” Newton, said that a letter was sent to his stake president from above him somewhere in the church’s chain of leadership. The letter, he alleged, said that higher-ups in the church suggested that it would be preferable if ecclesiastical leaders did not testify on behalf of those in their groups. Newton went on to testify during Lovell’s 2015 trial.
Newton said he served as the bishop for the Utah State Prison’s Uinta 1, the prison’s maximum security wing, starting in 2003 and ending in either 2006 or 2007.
In a motion filed in June by attorneys representing the church, they claimed that the church has a “long-standing” policy for church leaders to avoid getting involved with the legal or civil matters of their members. The purpose for that policy is to “prevent misunderstandings about whether the Church leader is testifying on behalf of the Church or in the Church leader’s personal capacity,” the motion says.
In a motion filed Wednesday, Lovell’s attorney Colleen Coebergh alleged that during Newton’s testimony in Lovell’s 2015 trial, he alluded to instructions by the church regarding his testimony. In those lines regarding Newton’s testimony during the trial, he was questioned about a “Handbook of Instructions” which would outline policies and procedures. During Friday’s hearing, attorneys for the church agreed to send Lovell’s counsel copies of handbooks given to all bishops in the church that outlines their policies and responsibilities.
Lovell was charged with killing South Ogden woman Joyce Yost in 1985. Lovell had been charged with sexually assaulting Yost, and killed her to prevent her from testifying in court, according to court documents.
Lovell was charged with aggravated murder in 1992, and pleaded guilty to aggravated murder in 1993. Shortly after, Lovell attempted to withdraw his guilty plea, but at first was not allowed to do so, and he would later be sentenced to death. The issue caused Lovell to appeal his case. In 2011, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that Lovell could withdraw his plea, indicating Lovell’s trial court failed to properly inform him of his right to a trial.
That resulted in a 2015 jury trial that took place in Ogden’s 2nd District Court. Lovell was again convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to death. Again, Lovell appealed.
The Friday hearing, in large part, is a precursor to a larger set of Rule 23B hearings, which will determine whether or not Lovell had ineffective counsel during his 2015 trial. Among the main accusations at the center of the future hearings is that one of Lovell’s former attorneys, Sean Young, failed to properly prepare Lovell’s former religious leaders for the 2015 trial. In October 2018, Young had his license to practice law in Utah suspended for three years after it was found that he mishandled a number of cases, including Lovell’s 2015 trial.
Young was assigned to contact 18 witnesses to testify at Lovell’s 2015 trial, and assured his co-counsel that he was doing his work, but said many of them were being uncooperative. According to complaints filed against Young, he only contacted two witnesses.
“The witnesses that Mr. Young failed to contact had compelling evidence to present to the jury on Mr. Lovell’s behalf, but they were never called to testify as a witness,” according to an amended complaint against Young filed in May 2018.
The same complaint also says that Young failed to object to the church’s interference with witness testimony after church leaders allegedly told several character witnesses that “they should not support a murderer.” The church allegedly threatened a potential witness with excommunication, according to the complaint.
The 23B hearings are scheduled to take place in Ogden’s 2nd District Court and will last for much of August.
Lovell is currently in the custody of the Utah State Prison, and is listed as one of the handful of people on the state’s death row.