Ronald Lafferty, Mormon Cult Leader on Death Row for Murder, Dies of Natural Causes


Ronald Lafferty, a Mormon fundamentalist on death row for what he claimed were the divinely inspired murders of his sister-in-law and baby niece in 1984, died of natural causes in prison on Monday. He was 78.

His death was announced by the Utah Department of Corrections, which did not give the specific cause. In a statement, the department said he died at the Utah State Prison in Draper, roughly 20 miles south of Salt Lake City.

Credit…Utah Department of Corrections, via Associated Press

The case against Mr. Lafferty, who was convicted of two counts of murder, became widely known after it was featured in the 2003 book “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith” by Jon Krakauer.

The book, which detailed Mr. Lafferty’s brutal crime, messianic delusions and decades of appeals, was criticized as anti-religion by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Therese Michelle Day, a federal public defender representing Mr. Lafferty, said his legal team was preparing to appeal his case to the United States Supreme Court at the time of his death. Ms. Day said no execution date had been set, but Richard Piatt, a spokesman for the Utah attorney general’s office, said his execution most likely would have happened next year.

Mr. Lafferty had chosen to die by firing squad, but Ms. Day said he had not been mentally fit to stand trial.

“Mr. Lafferty believed his incarceration and conviction were the result of a conspiracy between the state, the church, and unseen spiritual forces, including the spirit of the trial judge’s deceased father, among others,” Ms. Day said. “He believed that all of his attorneys were working against him, and that one attorney was his reincarnated sister who later became possessed by an evil spirit.”

“A person suffering from this level of mental illness and delusional thinking is not competent to assist his counsel throughout his legal proceedings,” she added.

Sean D. Reyes, the attorney general of Utah, said in a statement that the state had “labored for decades to provide justice” for Mr. Lafferty’s victims.

“That the wheels of justice turn so slowly in cases like this is cruel and tragic,” Mr. Reyes said. “Now that Mr. Lafferty is facing his Maker, perhaps ultimate justice will be realized and there will finally be some closure for the family of the victims.”

The events leading to the killings began in 1983, when Mr. Lafferty was excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for his increasingly extreme religious views, according to court records. Those views included an embrace of polygamy, which the church banned in 1890.

Angered over his excommunication and the collapse of his marriage, Mr. Lafferty formed a breakaway polygamous sect with his brothers called the School of the Prophets in 1984. The brothers claimed they received messages from God.

Mr. Lafferty said one of those messages told him his ex-wife, who left him and took their six children to Florida, had been the bride of a Satan in a previous life.

In another message, he said, he was told that four people caused his excommunication and divorce, including his brother Allen’s wife, Brenda, and their 15-month-old daughter, Erica, “who he believed would grow up to be just as despicable as her mother,” according to court documents.

God told him to kill all four of them, Mr. Lafferty said. So on July 24, 1984 — a state holiday that commemorates the arrival of Mormons in the Salt Lake Valley — Mr. Lafferty and a group of followers, including his brother Daniel, went to Brenda’s house in American Fork, Utah.

They beat her, strangled her with a vacuum cord and slit her throat. Then they slit her baby’s throat, court records said.

But after killing Brenda and her child, they decided not to kill the other two people named in Mr. Lafferty’s vision. Instead, the group fled the Salt Lake City area for Nevada, where Mr. Lafferty and Daniel were arrested the following month.

(Daniel Charles Lafferty, 71, is serving a life sentence at Utah State Prison for his role in the killings, according to the Department of Corrections.)

Mr. Lafferty’s mental competence to stand trial quickly became an issue in the case and would be the focus of his subsequent appeal efforts.

He was convicted of both killings and sentenced to death in 1985. But in 1991, the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit vacated Mr. Lafferty’s convictions and ordered a new trial after finding that the wrong legal standard had been used to determine his mental competence.

Prosecutors again charged Mr. Lafferty with the killings, but a competency hearing in November 1992 found him to be mentally unfit to stand trial owing to mental illness. He was sent to a state psychiatric hospital until a new competency hearing was held in February 1994 and he was found competent to stand trial.

In April 1996, he was again convicted of the killings, and again sentenced to death.

At Mr. Lafferty’s second trial, his brother Daniel claimed to have killed both victims, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. But another member of the group, Charles Carnes, told the court that as the group drove to Nevada, Ronald Lafferty confessed to killing Brenda and thanked Daniel for killing Erica.

“‘I can’t believe I killed her,’” Mr. Carnes quoted Ronald Lafferty as saying, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. “‘Thank you, brother, for doing the baby because I don’t think I had it in me.’”

Mr. Lafferty filed several appeals at the state and federal levels, the most recent of which was denied in August. His lawyer, Ms. Day, said in a statement on Monday that he had never received proper treatment for what she described as a severe mental illness.

“Through it all Mr. Lafferty, himself, never believed that he was mentally ill or incompetent,” she said. “One expert said that if he was guilty of faking anything, he was guilty of pretending to be normal when he was not.”

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