A former Utah defense lawyer has received a $250,000 settlement after suing Weber County for allegedly firing him in retaliation for his public criticism of the county’s refusal to properly fund a death-row prisoner’s capital appeal and its interference in the case.

Samuel Newton (pictured), now a law professor at the University of Idaho, reached a settlement with county officials in a longstanding dispute over the Weber County Commissioners’ termination of his contract to provide criminal defense representation to indigent prisoners in their appeals of Weber County convictions. The settlement, announced on April 22, 2021, comes in the wake of a September 2020 ruling by a Utah federal judge that denied the county’s motion to dismiss Newton’s retaliatory firing claim.

In its September ruling, Judge Howard C. Nielson allowed Newton’s case to proceed to trial, rejecting the county’s contention that Newton’s criticism of its actions constituted speech about contractual matters that was not protected by the First Amendment. “To the contrary,” Judge Nielson wrote, “these communications implicated matters such as whether the County was underfunding the defense in a high-profile capital case, whether the County was seeking to limit Mr. Newton’s communications with his client, and whether the County was second guessing and undermining Mr. Newton’s ‘exercise of independent judgment on behalf of the client,’” which constituted protected speech regarding matters of public concern.

In a joint statement, Newton and the county wrote: “Both parties were confident in the strength of their respective positions and the case was headed to trial. After considering the anticipated costs and potential risks of going to trial, the parties decided to mediate. Among other things, the settlement amount took into account the costs of protracted litigation, attorney fees, and the amount Mr. Newton would have received under his appellate contract if it were not terminated early.” The full details of the settlement remain confidential.

The dispute came to a head while Newton was representing Utah death-row prisoner Douglas Lovell on appeal. Newton had obtained an order from the Utah Supreme Court returning the case to the county courts for an evidentiary hearing on alleged investigative failures by Lovell’s trial lawyer and the possible interference by the Church of Latter-Day Saints with the testimony of bishops who had worked with Lovell in prison. Newton requested additional funding for the representation, estimating that the case would take an additional 500-750 hours. The county said it would authorize no more than $15,000 and publicly accused Newton of overbilling, unnecessarily interviewing witnesses the county claimed were irrelevant, and meeting too frequently with his client. Newton then withdrew from the case, claiming that the county had placed him in a “terrible catch-22” in which he could either “represent Mr. Lovell zealously and lose his livelihood or compromise Mr. Lovell’s case and save his practice.”

In an October 2017 commentary in the Salt Lake Tribune, Newton wrote: “Our capital punishment system is a charade. We provide a ‘defense lawyer’ but either give someone with no experience or refuse to give the necessary resources to experienced attorneys. In Utah, a state with one of the lowest death penalty populations in the United States, which has not executed a defendant since 2010, almost every attorney to take a death penalty case has suffered extreme personal loss. The result is a crisis-level lack of qualified attorneys willing or able to take on capital cases.” Several weeks later, Weber County terminated Newton’s public defense contract, after Newton continued to criticize the county for refusing to provide the funding he believed was necessary to pursue Lovell’s appeals.

Utah has created a trust fund administered by the Utah Indigent Defense Commission to help counties defray the costs of capital-defense representation. Most of the state’s counties make an annual payment to the trust to ensure funding is available in the event of a capital prosecution or appeal in their county. Weber County does not contribute to the fund, leaving the county responsible for the entire cost of indigent capital defense at trial and throughout the state appeal process.

In February 2021, the trial court denied Lovell’s petition to overturn his death sentence. That ruling is being appealed to the Utah Supreme Court.