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Sometimes Justice Can Be Hard to Reach

Justice can be a funny thing. It is important for everyone. We all want to treat others fairly, and we all also want to get our due. But we are so bad at assessing justice when it’s done to us that sometimes we can’t even tell whether it’s fair. And we’re even worse at figuring out what needs to be done about it.

I recently learned about the case of Adrian Thomas: a black teenager who was convicted in 1999 of the murder of an Asian student named Richard Whelan. Thomas was sentenced to life without parole, despite the fact that there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and no credible motive. He became eligible for parole in 2013 but was denied on the grounds that he had not shown sufficient remorse.

The case against Thomas broke down into these facts: A friend of his asked him if he wanted to rob someone, and he said yes; they went out and robbed someone who happened to be Asian; later, someone called Thomas on a pay phone and told him he’d better get rid of his gun or else; the victim was shot with a gun; a few weeks later, Thomas had a gun that turned out not to be the murder weapon but which nonetheless fired bullets of the same brand as those found

“Justice” is a funny word. In ordinary language it’s easy to confuse it with other concepts that have to do with giving people what they deserve. We say things like “social justice,” or “environmental justice,” and we talk about a “just war.” Those are good things to be concerned about, but they aren’t exactly the same thing as the thing we usually call by the name “justice.”

In a gruesome series of events thirty years ago, Utah resident Douglas Lovell “allegedly told his then-wife that he kidnapped Joyce Yost and drove her up to Causey Reservoir, where he strangled her, stomped on her neck and killed her,” according to the Salt Lake Tribune reporting on the case. But now, the defendant’s lawyers are attempting to keep Lovell’s then-wife out of court so she can’t testify about the admissions. Only a Utah attorney might understand the legal nuances at work in this life-and-death case, reopened decades after it seemed resolved.

Sometimes Justice Can Be Hard to Reach

First of all, Lovell was convicted of aggravated murder in 1993 when he plead guilty, voluntarily taking the stand. “His original plea deal with prosecutors spared him the death penalty, so long as he led authorities to where Yost was buried.” But when Lovell couldn’t find the woman’s remains prior to his sentencing date after multiple trips to the mountains to search for it, Lovell was sentenced to death, as any Utah attorney interested in history of capital punishment in the Beehive state would remember.

Utah Supreme Court

Now, though, five years after the “Utah Supreme Court in 2010 ruled he could withdraw the guilty plea because he should have been better informed of his rights during court proceedings,” Lovell may get another chance to avoid the death penalty. A lot of it may hinge on his ex-wife Rhonda Buttars’ testimony, and whether she is allowed to give it in the courtroom.

Lovell’s own lawyers have filed papers in court “that the defendant’s admissions to Buttars should be barred from trial because the statements are protected under a ‘confidential marital communications privilege,’” that applies in civil and criminal cases. A Utah attorney observing this case would be aware that this privilege “survives he end of a marriage—even after divorce or death,” giving Lovell what may be his best chance at a different outcome than he found at his first trial.

But the prosecutors in the case aren’t going to be put off so easily. “Deputy Weber County Attorney Jeffery Thomson argued that the statements should be allowed because Lovell made the alleged confessions after their 1990 divorce, in the presence of a third party, or while Buttars was aiding him in the commission of the murder.” According to the Utah attorney, each of these circumstances would preclude the protection invoked by the confidential marital communications privilege. And that’s exactly what Thomson is arguing.

Claiming that because Lovell also told his family, other jail inmates, and publicly confessed these details at his 1993 sentencing hearing, what Lovell told his wife is “not in confidence anymore,” making her eligible to testify at his upcoming trial.

It will be up to the Second District Judge, Michael DiReda to decide between Lovell’s attorneys’ claim of spousal privilege and Thomson’s refutation of it, making DiReda the last word on whether Buttars will be called upon to testify. Although Judge DiReda “did not immediately rule on the issue,” he told the court “that he would take the matter under advisement and file a written ruling.”

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It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Legal problems come to everyone. Whether it’s your son who gets in a car wreck, your uncle who loses his job and needs to file for bankruptcy, your sister’s brother who’s getting divorced, or a grandparent that passes away without a will -all of us have legal issues and questions that arise. So when you have a law question, call Ascent Law for your free consultation (801) 676-5506. We want to help you.

Michael R. Anderson, JD

Ascent Law LLC
8833 S. Redwood Road, Suite C
West Jordan, Utah
84088 United States

Telephone: (801) 676-5506


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