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Letters from death row: The writing campaign of Doug Lovell

Letter from Doug Lovell to young men in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, dated July 7, 2008. Photo: Dave Cawley

Letters written by Doug Lovell, a Utah death row inmate, in the years before and after the Utah Supreme Court in 2010 cleared the way for him to formally withdraw his guilty plea in a capital murder case, are coming to light in the latest episode of season 2 of the Cold podcast.

The letters were written by Doug Lovell as he attempted to avoid the death sentence he’d received for the August, 1985 murder of Joyce Yost.

Lovell hoped for an opportunity to convince a jury he was deserving of a chance for parole. He did not want to spend the rest of his days on death row.

New attorney, new judge

After Lovell’s victory at the high court, he received a new public defender, Michael Bouwhuis, who began to work on his case in August 2011. He was one of a select few public defenders in Weber County who was also qualified to handle a capital case, which carried the potential of the death penalty.

Bouwhuis visited Lovell in prison. They wrote letters to each other about the case. But Lovell stopped responding to the letters in May 2012.

Utah 2nd District Court Judge Michael Lyon had scheduled Lovell’s trial for February 2014. But Lovell repeatedly wrote to Lyon, asking to have Bouwhuis fired.

“During the last few months, the relationship between Mr. Bowhuis and I has reached a point of complete and utter breakdown in communication and trust,” Lovell wrote in 2012. “It is quite obvious he and I cannot work together.” 

Lyon denied the request, ordering Bowhuis to try to work things out with his client. Lovell next wrote to the Utah Supreme Court, asking again for a new attorney — and arguing Lyon was prejudiced against him. 

“I bring these letters to the Court’s attention now in hopes that we are not addressing them 5, 10, 20 years down the road,” he wrote.

Both Lyon and the Utah Supreme Court denied Lovell request for a new attorney. However, the case ended up before a different judge after Michael Lyon retired from the bench of Utah’s 2nd District Court in November 2013: Michael DiReda. 

Letters from Doug Lovell on Death Row

Doug Lovell didn’t just write letters directly related to his legal case. Much of what you hear from Doug Lovell in the course of the Cold podcast comes from those letters — some written to attorneys, some to judges, and some to strangers. 

In one instance, he wrote to a group of missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the religion into which Lovell was baptized as a child and later excommunicated from. The young men’s mission president, who knew Lovell, had asked him to write an “inspiring message” to the young men.

“I hope none of you will feel love for someone and risk losing them without ever having said these three simple words: I love you,” Lovell wrote.

Lovell did not explain in this letter why he was on death row: for raping Joyce Yost to prevent her from testifying in court about his earlier sexual assault against her.

After watching a PBS documentary about an Atlanta woman named Becky Douglas, who’d turned to charity work after her daughter’s death, Lovell again wrote a letter. He told Douglas he wanted to send money, the small amount he could, each month for her charity.

Douglas accepted the offer and wrote back to Lovell. They soon became pen pals. Lovell’s checks arrived monthly, without fail. Douglas even visited Lovell in prison.

Portrait of an inmate

As the trial date approached, all those letters Doug Lovell wrote provided his defense team an opportunity to highlight for the jury how Lovell had tried to help other people while incarcerated.

Lovell also provided his lawyers a list of potential character witnesses, including Becky Douglas, prison guards, social workers, and former inmates. Their testimonies, the defense believed, might prove useful in showing the jury Lovell was a different man than the one who’d raped and murdered Joyce Yost in 1985.  

The guilt phase of Lovell’s trial began March 16, 2015. It would take two days for the jury to get the case.

By that point, Lovell had already served nearly 30 years — seven directly related to the rape of Joyce Yost in 1985, the remaining 22 since first hearing he would be charged with her murder in 1993. 

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. Audiotapes 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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