Utah County Fires Lawyer Who Criticized Its Underfunding of Death-Penalty Appeals

A Utah county has fired an appeals lawyer who had publicly criticized the county’s underfunding of death-penalty cases. Attorney Samuel Newton (pictured)—hired by Weber County to handle the appeals of condemned prisoners Douglas Lovell and Floyd Maestas, as well as other indigent criminal defendants in the county—had his contract terminated by County Commissioner James Harvey, who said Newton’s comments to the media about underfunding were “harmful to the county’s reputation.” Harvey also criticized Newton for assertedly spending too much time developing a relationship with his clients when “all the state wants to know is if the appropriate decision has been made.” The American Bar Association Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases require that a capital defense attorney “establish a relationship of trust with the client, and should maintain close contact with the client.” Newton had previously withdrawn from Lovell’s case after arguing that the financial strain placed upon him from the county’s funding cap, and the county’s interference with his ability to communicate with his client, has caused him stress-related heart problems. In an email to the Salt Lake Tribune, Newton said that “[t]he state gives enormous resources to the prosecution” and “must similarly commit to equally and adequately support criminal defense attorneys, which is a right guaranteed by the United States Constitution.” He said that defense attorneys—and especially solo practitioners such as himself—“should not have to personally bear and front the financial cost for the enormous review required in a capital case.” The payment dispute with Weber County, Newton said, left him feeling as thought he “had to choose” between supporting his family financially and effectively representing his clients. Commissioner Harvey told Newton that his contract to handle the appeals of indigent Weber County defendants has been terminated effective January 31. Harvey said, “I don’t agree with giving a guy an open checkbook because he wants to create a relationship with a convicted felon on the taxpayers’ dime.” In a letter to the judge, Lovell wrote, “For the first time, I got an attorney who represented me to the fullest, … who knows my case inside & out & now the county had pulled the rug on funding him.” Ralph Dellapiana, chairman of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers capital defense committee, said that the state should not expect capital defense attorneys to work for free. “That’s a problem, the state refusing to pay qualified counsel to do the necessary work for appeals in death penalty cases,” he said. “And the solution is either to pay for it or end the death penalty.”

(J. Miller, “Appellate attorney fired for speaking about lack of funding in Utah death penalty case,” November 6, 2017; J. Miller, “Appellate attorney withdraws from Utah death penalty case, saying, ‘I had to choose’ between financially supporting family or representing Douglas Lovell,” The Salt Lake Tribune, September 2, 2017; J. Miller, “Two death row inmates need new attorneys — but will anyone sign up?,” The Salt Lake Tribune, September 18, 2017.) See Costs and Representation.