June 2006

Ex-Utah County attorney oversaw 1st post-hiatus death sentence in ’77
Well-respected lawyer: He is best known for getting the conviction of killer Gary Mark Gilmore
By Dawn House, The Salt Lake Tribune, 05/01/2006

Noall Wootton once said he was through with the death penalty after winning the capital-punishment case against killer Gary Mark Gilmore.

Then he saw the body of the 15-month-old victim of cult murderers Ron and Dan Lafferty and changed his mind.

On Tuesday, memorial services are scheduled for Wootton, 65, who died Thursday of cancer and will be buried in the American Fork City Cemetery, not far from the law office where he practiced for 42 years.

Utah Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert, a former Utah County commissioner, said Wootton “provided great public service [as county attorney] and was also well-regarded in his private practice. He served with honor and distinction and was respected by his peers.”

Wootton was in his first term as Utah County attorney when he was called upon to prosecute Gilmore in two grisly murders. The case would draw the nation’s first death penalty after a decade during which the U.S. Supreme Court required states to change their death penalty guidelines.

“It’s easy to be in favor of the death penalty when a pollster from a newspaper or TV station calls you at home,” he once said. “It’s something else to see a guy strapped into a chair and a hood put over his head. It makes you reconsider.”

Gilmore was executed by firing squad in January 1977 for the July 22, 1976, murder of Provo motel clerk Bennie Bushnell. He also was charged with capital murder for killing Brigham Young University law student Max Jensen, a part-time Orem gas station attendant, the night before the Bushnell murder.

Wootton was disgusted with the circuslike atmosphere surrounding Gilmore as reporters traveled to Utah from around the world. He was offered $25,000 to get a picture of the killer on death row but refused “because it wasn’t part of my job description.”

Wootton had second thoughts when Gilmore was executed, complaining that even condemned dogs don’t get shot.

That softening changed when he walked into the American Fork home of Brenda Lafferty, sister in-law to Ron and Dan Lafferty, who slashed the throats of her and her baby daughter, Erica, July 24, 1984, in ritualistic slayings.

Wootton won convictions for both men, and separate juries decided on a death sentence for Ron Lafferty and a life sentence for his brother. Wootton blamed the different penalties on a young woman juror who often held eye contact with Dan Lafferty through the penalty phase of the trial.

Wootton established his law firm in 1963, where he practiced with his father, O. Devere Wootton, until the elder Wootton’s death in 1980. The younger Wootton had served as Utah County attorney from 1974 to 1986.

“He was a well-known attorney and a good man,” said American Fork Mayor Heber Thompson. “He also was a happy person and devoted to his family.”

He is survived by his wife, Nancy Wootton; mother, Nora Prows Wootton; three children; a stepdaughter; and two brothers.

U-News & Views © 2006 - An online publication
by the University of Utah Alumni Association
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