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Lafferty v. Benzon

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

August 12, 2019

RONALD WATSON LAFFERTY, Petitioner - Appellant,
LARRY BENZON, Warden of the Utah State Prison, Respondent - Appellee.

          (D.C. No. 2:07-CV-00322-DB) (D. Utah).

          Before BRISCOE, HOLMES, and CARSON, Circuit Judges.


          Mary Beck Briscoe Circuit Judge.

         Petitioner Ronald Watson Lafferty was convicted in Utah state district court of multiple criminal charges, including two counts of first degree murder, and was sentenced to death. After exhausting his state court remedies, Lafferty sought federal habeas relief by filing a petition in federal district court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The district court denied his petition and also denied him a certificate of appealability (COA). Lafferty has now filed a renewed motion with this court seeking a COA on four claims that were asserted in his federal habeas petition. We deny a COA and dismiss this matter.


         Factual background

         Lafferty grew up in Orem, Utah and was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS Church). During the period between 1982 and 1983, he became increasingly critical of the LDS Church and he was excommunicated in 1983.

         The following year, Lafferty's wife Diana filed for and obtained a divorce and moved with their six children to Florida. Lafferty felt his excommunication was unjust and was distraught over the dissolution of his marriage.

         Lafferty and some of his brothers organized themselves into what he called the "School of the Prophets." The brothers claimed that they received communications from God and they would meet as a group to discuss these "revelations."

         It was during this time that Lafferty first told his brothers that he had received a revelation that his ex-wife Diana had been the wife of the devil in a previous world. Lafferty believed their union angered the devil, who in turn caused him trouble in this world out of jealousy. In the spring of 1984, Lafferty claimed to have received another revelation from God (the "removal revelation") ordering that four people were to be "removed." Among those to be "removed" were his brother Allen's wife Brenda, their fifteen-month-old daughter Erica, Richard Stowe, and Chloe Low.

         Prior to this time, Lafferty had expressed negative feelings to other family members and friends about the four persons named in the removal revelation. He believed that all four in some way had either helped his wife obtain a divorce or played a part in his excommunication from the LDS Church.

         In conjunction with the removal revelation, Lafferty claimed to have received another revelation on March 13, 1984, commanding that he and the School of the Prophets "consecrate" an "instrument" to be used in the removal of the four named individuals. When he discussed this new revelation, only two of his brothers, Dan and Watson, agreed to such an action; the others involved with the School of the Prophets felt that this and the removal revelation were not of God and disassociated themselves from the revelations. The School of the Prophets disbanded because of disagreement over this issue, but Dan and Lafferty continued in their belief that the revelations needed to be fulfilled.

         On July 24, 1984, Lafferty, Dan and two other men, Charles Carnes ("Chip") and Ricky Knapp, drove together to Brenda's apartment. Lafferty and Dan went into the apartment. The other two men stayed in the car. Brenda was beaten, strangled with a vacuum cord, and had her throat slit. Brenda's fifteen-month-old daughter also had her throat slit.

         The men next drove to Low's house. After they determined no one was there, the men broke into the house and took numerous items. As they left Low's house, Lafferty began talking about going on to Stowe's home.

         After accidentally missing the turnoff to Stowe's home, Dan and Lafferty decided to abandon trying to fulfill the rest of the revelation. They stopped at a service station and then headed toward Wendover. Chip testified at trial that during the drive Lafferty admitted to killing Brenda. Chip also testified that Lafferty thanked Dan for killing the baby.

         Once in Wendover, the group rented a small kitchenette apartment where they cleaned up, ate, and spent the night. The next night, afraid of what the Lafferty brothers had said they had done, Ricky and Chip quietly left the apartment and drove away in the car. They were arrested in Cheyenne, Wyoming on July 30, 1984. Lafferty and Dan were taken into custody by the FBI in Reno, Nevada, on August 17, 1984.

         Procedural background

         A. The original state criminal proceedings

         Lafferty was charged in Utah state district court with two counts of first degree murder, two counts of aggravated burglary, and two counts of conspiracy to commit first degree murder. Lafferty's competency to stand trial became a key issue, but the state trial court ultimately found Lafferty competent to stand trial. At trial, Lafferty was convicted by a jury on all counts and sentenced to death. The Utah Supreme Court subsequently affirmed Lafferty's convictions and sentence.

         B. Lafferty's first federal habeas petition

         Lafferty filed a petition for federal habeas relief pursuant to § 2254. The district court denied the petition and Lafferty appealed. This court concluded that the state trial judge had applied the wrong legal standard in determining Lafferty's competency to stand trial. See Lafferty v. Cook, 949 F.2d 1546, 1556 (10th Cir. 1991). This court further concluded that a competency determination could not, as a matter of law, be made on the record that existed, and it also concluded that the passage of time rendered impractical a remand for an after-the-fact competency hearing. Id. In light of ...

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