Citing “damning revelations” that police and prosecutors have used bribes and threats to secure testimony in a three-decades-old capital case, the Utah Supreme Court has ordered a Utah County court to conduct a hearing to determine whether death-row prisoner Douglas Stewart Carter should receive a new trial. Carter has spent 33 years on Utah’s death row. Although police found fingerprints and blood at the crime scene, no physical evidence tied Carter to the crime.
Carter, who is African American, was convicted of the murder of a white woman, Eva Olesen, based upon the testimony of two witnesses, Epifanio and Lucia Tovar, who told the jury that he had bragged to them about killing Oleson during a home invasion, that he also said he had intended to rape her, and that he had laughed about her death. Prosecutors also presented a statement Carter had made to police confessing to the murder, but Carter has long claimed that statement had been coerced. Shortly after the trial, the court said, the Tovars “vanished.” After Carter overturned his death sentence on appeal, prosecutors told the court in 1992 that they could not locate the Tovars to testify at Carter’s resentencing. At the resentencing, the trial court permitted the prosecution to read the jury the Tovars’ testimony from Carter’s first trial, and he was again sentenced to death. Through what the appeals court described as “a coincidence,” Carter’s defense team was able to find the Tovars in 2011. When his lawyers spoke with them, the Tovars—who were in the country illegally— confessed that Provo police had threatened them with deportation, the removal of their son, and prison if they did not implicate Carter, pressured them to make false statements, and then gave them gifts and paid for their rent and groceries once they agreed to cooperate. In a sworn statement, the Tovars also said that police had explicitly instructed them to lie under oath about the payments.
Despite this evidence, the trial court had denied Carter’s petition for a new trial without a hearing. The appeals court reversed. In its decision, the court wrote that, in the absence of physical evidence implicating Carter, the Tovars’ testimony was “crucial” to the prosecution’s case. Writing for the court, Justice Deno Himonas said: “Carter has a colorable claim that the Tovars’ testimony evolved over time to become more damaging to Carter in an attempt to please the people who had provided them with rent money and threatened them with deportation and separation if they did not cooperate.” The court said that the Tovars’ sworn statements created “a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the outcome of the trial would have been different but for the absence of the evidence,” and ordered the trial court to grant Carter a hearing at which he may attempt to prove his claim.