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COLD: How Doug Lovell tried to change his guilty plea to fight death

Jun 2, 2021, 10:00 AM
doug lovell mugshot - communication failures in joyce yost case guilty plea...
Doug Lovell, seen here in a Salt Lake County mugshot, was arrested several times in the summer of 1985 but released, in spite of facing serious charges related to the rape of Joyce Yost. She vanished 10 days before she would have testified against him. Later, his appeal would focus on trying to withdraw his guilty plea to Joyce Yost's murder. Photo: Police files

You might think a guilty plea, on the part of a defendant facing a serious charge like murder, equates to an admission of guilt. But Doug Lovell tried to take back his guilty plea in the murder of Joyce Yost, making that the basis of his appeal in the case. 

To be clear, he never claimed innocence. Instead, he tried to withdraw his guilty plea in a series of appeals, eventually arguing his lawyer talked him into taking his case straight to the judge, rather than a jury. 

The guilty plea of Doug Lovell

At the end of Episode 9 of the second season of the COLD podcast, that judge, Stanton Taylor, sentenced Doug Lovell to death for the murder of Joyce Yost.

Episode 10 focuses on the work Doug Lovell did to try to undo his original guilty plea. 

Three weeks after Taylor sentenced Doug Lovell to death in 1993, Lovell wrote the judge a letter. In it, he asked to withdraw his guilty plea.

“John talked me into going with you because he said he doubted that you would or could give me the death penalty. He was wrong,” Lovell wrote. “I wanted all along to have a jury hear the penalty hearing and not you because I felt I had a much better chance with a jury to receive a life sentence.”

Five days later, Lovell’s attorney John Caine, without the knowledge of his client, filed a formal appeal to the death sentence.

The next month, the judge granted Lovell’s longstanding request to fire Caine. However, he did not address Lovell’s request to withdraw his plea. Instead, that aspect of the case remained in legal limbo. 

Meanwhile, the appeal initially filed by Caine moved forward to the Utah Supreme Court under the direction of a different appellate legal team. It ultimately became one of three times the Utah Supreme Court would take up Lovell’s case. 

Ineffective counsel and a conflict of interest

With new legal representation, Doug Lovell argued his former defense attorney, Caine, had had a conflict of interest that’d interfered with his work. The original prosecutor on Lovell’s case, Weber County Attorney Reed Richards, and Caine had a long-standing friendship. They’d even been law partners at one point. 

The Utah Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court in 1995 to have the original judge consider the conflict of interest claim. Lovell’s attorneys successfully argued the trial judge should recuse himself. So instead, the appeal and the conflict of interest claim landed before Judge Michael Lyon. He sent his recommendation back to the state supreme court in 1997. 

The Utah Supreme Court held oral arguments in Lovell’s appeal on Sept. 1, 1998. There, a lawyer with the Utah Attorney General’s office argued Doug Lovell never brought up his desire to fire John Caine as his attorney either at a hearing to change his plea to guilty or at his sentencing. 

In other words, since Lovell eventually went through with the plea deal, that’d indicated his acceptance both of the offer and his attorney. 

The state supreme court handed down its decision in 1999. They rejected Lovell’s appeal. Associate Chief Justice Christine Durham called the evidence of Lovell’s crimes “overwhelmingly conclusive,” but said the defense attorney worked to secure the best possible plea deal for Lovell. But the high court’s decision did not address the request to withdraw the guilty plea.

Judge says no to withdrawal of guilty plea

Once again before Judge Michael Lyon, Doug Lovell filed a motion to withdraw the original guilty plea. Prosecutors asked Lyon to dismiss the motion. 

This time, Lyon decided Lovell could not withdraw the plea because h’de made that request more than 30 days after originally entering the plea. By state law, withdrawal of a guilty plea needed to come within 30 days.

Additionally, Lyon said because Caine had appealed the death sentence and the state supreme court had already considered and issued a decision that appeal, he no longer had jurisdiction. 

Court documents show Lovell appealed yet again, sending his case back to the Utah Supreme Court in September 2004. And once again, new lawyers represented him in his appeal. 

This time, Lovell’s team argued the 30 days to withdraw his plea should have started the day he was sentenced, not the day he entered the plea, months before. A previous state supreme court ruling backed them up on that point. 

The justices again sent the case back to Lyon, saying Lovell’s motion was still pending. They ordered Lyon to rule on the issue. 

“Categorically irrelevant” 

Lyon held a hearing in November 2005 on whether Doug Lovell should be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea. The judge did not allow Lovell’s ex-wife Rhonda Buttars to testify, as Lovell had requested, saying her testimony would be irrelevant to the issues at hand.

In a letter to his attorneys, Lovell bristled at the idea. He wanted Buttars questioned because he said Caine had failed to ask her specific questions that might have helped his case. In particular, he objected to the judge’s finding that Buttars was only “peripherally” involved in the murder of Joyce Yost. 

“Had John asked Rhonda the questions I wanted him to ask her back then, Judge Taylor would have seen Rhonda’s true & full involvement in ‘everything’ & would never have said her involvement was peripheral,” Lovell wrote. “It could have been the very thing that tipped the scale in favor of not giving me the death penalty.” 

He wrote Lyon as well, making the same argument. But Lyon shot that down, calling it “categorically irrelevant.” 

Lovell’s attorneys launched yet another appeal that resulted in his case landing before the state supreme court for a third time.  

A new trial for Doug Lovell

The third round for Doug Lovell before the Utah Supreme Court, in 2009, focused not on his attorney, but on his guilty plea itself. 

He still did not dispute his guilt. His confession stood. What he wanted was a new trial and the chance at a new sentencing. 

Lovell’s new attorney, David Finlayson, seized on the instructions given to Lovell by the original trial judge, Taylor. He argued Taylor failed to fully explain Lovell’s rights to him. 

“Nowhere in the record of the plea hearing was the presumption of innocence communicated to Mr. Lovell,” Finlayson said. 

In particular, Finlayson said, Lovell did not learn from the judge that it would require a unanimous vote from 12 jurors to give him the death penalty. He made the case that Lovell did not realize what he was giving up by pleading guilty. He harkened back to Lovell’s letter to the trial judge asking for the plea withdrawal, which said his intent all along was to face a jury, not a judge. 

Assistant Utah Attorney General Laura Dupaix disagreed that Lovell didn’t know his rights. 

“He was told three times that he was giving up the right to require that the state prove that he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said in oral arguments. 

In July 2010, 25 years after the murder of Joyce Yost, the Utah Supreme Court released its decision. 

Lovell would receive a new trial. 

Listen to the full episode

Season 2 of the COLD podcast will take you inside the no-body homicide investigation triggered by Yost’s disappearance. Audio tapes never before made public will allow you to hear Yost, in her own voice, describe the events which preceded her death.

You will learn why police suspected one man, Douglas Lovell, yet were unable to arrest him at the time. And you will learn how some individuals and institutions gave — and continue to give — Lovell every opportunity to evade the ultimate penalty.

Hear Joyce Yost’s voice for the first time in the COLD podcast season 2, available to listen free on Amazon Music.

Free resources and help with sexual abuse are available 24/7 at RAINN.org.  You can also call 800-856-HOPE (4673).

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COLD: How Doug Lovell tried to change his guilty plea to fight death