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A Utah attorney knows that “justice” can sometimes be slippery and undefinable, not to mention hard to reach

February 20, 2015

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.

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.

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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