Tenth Circuit Reinstates Death Penalty for Defendant Who Pleaded Guilty as an Accomplice

It is certainly difficult to have any sympathy for Taylor who was found guilty in a crime that was horrific on every level. His accomplice Ed Deli fatally shot Kaye Tiede and her mother, Beth Potts. They then kidnapped Tiede’s daughters, ages 20 and 17. The Tenth Circuit however noted that Taylor was directly responsible for wounding the father:

“About two hours after the initial shooting, Linae’s sister (Tricia) and her father (Rolf) arrived at the house. Mr. Taylor instructed Mr. Deli to shoot Rolf. When Mr. Deli hesitated, Mr. Taylor shot Rolf twice in the head and left him in the cabin, believing him to be dead.”

At trial, Deli denied guilt, was tried and given a life sentence. Taylor on the other hand admitted guilty and was then sentenced to death. Taylor argued insanity and his words to the state psychiatrist were used against him during sentencing. (Many years ago, I litigated a similar issue in the Fifth Circuit in Brown v. Louisiana on the need to give Miranda warning in such psychiatric evaluations).

A few months ago, U.S. District Court Judge Tena Campbell overturned Taylor’s death sentence due to ineffective legal counsel.  On May 1, 1991, Taylor accepted a plea to two counts of capital murder in exchange for eight lesser charges being dropped. The deal, however, did not include taking the death penalty off the table and he was sentenced to death.

Moreover, the district court found that there was inadequate discovery by his defense counsel, particularly on proving his claim that he did not actually fire the murder weapon even though prosecutors claimed that he carried and reloaded the gun. The court noted:

“He did not visit the scene. He did not hire an investigator. And critically, he did not consult, much less hire, experts. If [Defense counsel Elliott] Levine had fulfilled his duty to investigate by, for example, hiring a ballistics expert and a forensics expert, he would have uncovered evidence that contradicted the state’s evidence. Mr. Levine was not informed when he advised Mr. Taylor, and he made little to no effort to become informed. There was no articulated, or conceivable, strategic reason for failing to hire an investigator and experts in a death penalty case.”

Ultimately, the plea itself was undermined by what the court found was ineffective counsel.

A federal court has overturned Von Lester Taylor’s 1991 conviction and death sentence. He, along with Edward Deli, pictured here, were convicted of killing two people and critically injuring a third in Summit County in 1990.

Judge Campbell held:

“The court finds that Mr. Taylor’s constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel was violated when he pleaded guilty to two capital murders based on inexcusably uninformed advice from counsel which then exposed him to the possibility of execution. The record shows there is a reasonable probability that, but for trial counsel’s failure to investigate, Mr. Taylor would not have pleaded guilty to two capital murders and would have insisted on going to trial with evidence that Mr. Deli, not Mr. Taylor, caused the deaths of Kaye Tiede and Beth Potts.”

The Tenth Circuit disagreed and reinstated that death penalty. It dismissed any need to even look at the ineffective counsel claim due to the wording of the plea and related showings:

“On appeal, the state does not challenge Mr. Taylor’s new evidence. The state concedes for the sake of argument that Mr. Taylor did not fire the fatal shots. Rather, the state argues the district court erred as a matter of law in confining the actual innocence inquiry to Mr. Taylor’s guilt of capital murder as a principal. According to the state, Mr. Taylor pleaded guilty to the two counts of capital murder generally, not under a specific theory of liability. Thus, the state argues that because Mr. Taylor cannot establish actual innocence as both a principal and an accomplice, his claims for relief remain procedurally defaulted and we cannot consider them.

We agree with the state. As we explain below, under Utah’s laws regarding accomplice liability, the state provided Mr. Taylor notice of what crime he was being charged with and pleading guilty to: capital murder. And Mr. Taylor has done nothing to prove a reasonable, properly instructed jury more likely than not would have reasonable doubt about his guilt as an accomplice to the murders. Thus, we need not reach Mr. Taylor’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel leading to a defective guilty plea because it remains procedurally barred.”

The fact that the ineffective counsel claims were not considered is deeply troubling. This strikes me as a compelling ineffective counsel case. Again, I agree with the Tenth Circuit that Taylor’s guilt as an accomplice is well-established. However, he had a right to a fully informed and prepared defense.

There is also the incongruity in the sentences in the case.  While not a viable independent basis for challenge, it is troubling to see the shooter given life when the non-shooter who pleaded guilty was given death. It also reflects an interesting dynamic with juries. A jury was given an opportunity to express its condemnation with Deli in finding his guilty but then felt life was sufficient as a penalty. The jury was not given the same opportunity to adjudicate guilt for Taylor and then, in its only decision, opted for the death penalty on sentencing.

In the end, if we are to retain the death penalty, there must be robust protections for effective counsel. I do not see those protections in this case despite the heinous conduct of the accused.

Here is the opinion: Taylor v. Powell

18 thoughts on “Tenth Circuit Reinstates Death Penalty for Defendant Who Pleaded Guilty as an Accomplice”

  1. Can anyone tell me the name of a convict on death row who is a millionaire? We do have a two tier justice system. OJ sold his house in Brentwood (Beverly Hills poor neighbor) so he could hire a dream legal team.

    The death penalty is haphazardly applied.

  2. According to Wikipedia:

    [Turley] has written extensively in opposition to the death penalty, noting, “Human error remains a principal cause of botched executions… eventually society will be forced to deal directly with a fundamental moral question: Has death itself become the intolerable element of the death penalty?”

    I guess that makes Turley a bleeding heart Liberal. Sorry Trumpists.

    1. The Innocence Project may offer another opinion. Those of us who have had years of experience reviewing not only capital but other cases as well would advise letting about 1/3 of the nation’s prison population OUT, there are better alternatives.. Sentencing Guidelines is simply a way of saying “we are not doing squat.”

  3. You can write about it until the cows come home. The communists think they are the law. It’s positively everywhere in our court system, alphabet soup agencies, the house, the Senate, and town, cities and states. The law has been abandoned. See January 6th compared with ANTIFA and BLM for glaring examples.

    1. Judith,

      It’s time to flush the whole damn system down the toilet, isn’t it? It must suck to be you.

  4. “Mere factual innocence is no reason to overturn a death sentence properly reached” …Antonia Scalia.

  5. This guy has argued ineffective counsel ineffectively since his sentencing with entirely different lawyers, once before the Utah Supreme Court, which disagreed. The jury that convicted his fellow defendant had a lone hold out, which resulted in his life sentence. They weren’t, as far as I can find, tried together by the same jury. Under Utah law, Taylor’s charging and sentence were appropriate. In the public’s mind, the sentence was appropriate. A single federal judge finds differently and now she’s the trusted authority? How many appeals do the victims have to go through before lawyers deeply opposed to the death penalty will leave them at peace? Change people’s minds about the death penalty (which, by the way, I oppose) and then you can change the law.

  6. I have always been a solid supporter of the death penalty.
    No more
    The campaign and administration of President Trump, has been a real eye opener.

    Our Government has lost all credibility. The Justice system is just like Journalism and has turned to advocacy instead of blind justice. Our Government cannot be trusted to take anyone’s life.

    1. What does Trump have to do with it? Because he followed the law on Federal executions? Taylor had his day in court, in fact he had many of them. He’s argued before that he had ineffective council.. and courts disagreed. Time for him to hang! Good reddens, I hope he’s scared to death when his time comes!

  7. Makes absolutely no sense. What was the 10th Circuit thinking? Such inconsistency in application erodes the basis of trust in the judiciary

    1. It makes one wonder if the Courts and Prosecutors are too focused on winning, in this case winning means killing a man, or the equal administration of the law.

      There is a two teir justice system those who can afford top lawyers generally end up with better out comes. I would assume in this case the defense lawyer was assigned to the case by either the court or Prosecution. So any legitimate cause for ineffective counsel is the fault of the prosecutor and / or the Judge. After all they would be the ones to know that any lawyer is not the best lawyer for a capital case.

    2. Um no. The courts have been very consistent. Taylor had his day in court, in fact he had many of them. He’s argued before that he had ineffective council, fore decades in fact.. and the UTAH Supreme court disagreed. Time for him to hang! Good riddns, I hope he’s scared to death when his time comes!

  8. Maybe give the prosecutor a death penalty sentence. He/she is responsible for this guy’s death. The year 2990 is a long time ago. Recuse all the judges who voted for the death penalty and put them on trial for killing a human. Tenth Circuit court of seals.

    1. Did he or did he not due the crime? Regardless of not having proper legal council, coming from a broken home, hearing voices did he due the crime ? And he said yes ” I did the crime” End Of Story.

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