Convicted murderer Ron Lafferty died Monday after spending 34 years on Utah's Death Row. In 1984, he ordered the killing of his sister-in-law Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica. The case was the subject of the book “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Author Jon Krakauer joined KUER's Caroline Ballard to reflect on Lafferty's death.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: For those who might not be familiar with this case, who is Ron Lafferty?
Jon Krakauer Ron Lafferty is a fundamentalist [Mormon] who grew up in Utah County, and came to believe that God ordered him to kill his sister-in-law — a young woman — and her infant baby. He and his brother, believing this revelation to be true, carried out brutal murders, and that's why he ended up on death row.
CB: Ron Lafferty was an upstanding member of the LDS community in Utah County, but ended up — as you said — a radical fundamentalist. How did that transition happen?
JK: You have to go back to their upbringing. Their father wasn't a fundamentalist, but he was a very severe disciplinarian: He beat his children and his wife. He killed the family dog with a baseball bat — in front of his children. So this was a very dysfunctional family. Ron was the oldest child. Dan was four years younger, and he was introduced to polygamy in his ward. He believed that the mainstream LDS church had gone wrong when it abandoned polygamy. And Dan became enamored of this and joined a group called "The School of the Prophets."
The goal of this group was to teach its bishops, its members, how to receive revelations from God, and Ron took to it. He started having revelations. By this point, Ron had gone off the deep end. He was broke. His life was going south. He was a very angry man.
The youngest member of the Lafferty family — the youngest son — was Allenn Lafferty, who married this beautiful young woman who was going to BYU, Brenda Wright. And all the other Lafferty brothers sort of fell under Ron and Dan's sway about this fundamentalism. And Allenn started to fall under the sway of Ron, too. And Brenda, his wife, resisted. She stood up to the Lafferty brothers. She fought back, and Ron resented this. And so, coincidental or not — I don't think so — he had a revelation: God told him that Brenda needed to be removed along with her infant daughter.
CB: Lafferty claimed that he had spoken to God and that God had instructed him to remove these people. Why were his crime and trial and all of his subsequent appeals so important when it came to insanity defenses and religious belief?
JK: That's one of the most interesting parts of this story. He was convicted in 1985, and sentenced to death. There were numerous appeals that went all the way up to the Supreme Court. Eventually, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver reversed his conviction.
They said that Utah court had wrongly determined that he was competent to stand trial. So, they ordered the case back to the same court in Provo and said, “You need to start over again and and do a better job at determining whether his competence stands trial.”
That was really interesting because his defense lawyer said, "Look, how could someone with these extreme beliefs — talking to God, God tells him to kill his sister-in-law and her baby — that's clearly insane." And the prosecution said, "No, no. People have extreme religious beliefs all the time." I mean, most of us believe something that to outsiders would be preposterous — parting of the Red Sea, the virgin birth, going to heaven.
So what was different about Ron and Dan was not that they were insane. It's that they were extreme sociopaths and narcissists, lacking empathy, with grandiose ideas. It was just anger and resentment and misogyny that caused Ron and Dan to believe that God was talking to them. And the prosecution prevailed. In the second trial, he was found guilty again, and again, sentenced to die. Then there were more appeals, numerous appeals about the death penalty, and those appeals continued up until very recently.
JK: Finally, the court said, "You have no appeals left. You are going to be sentenced to die." A date wasn't set, but everyone understood that this would be happening in months — not years — that it would probably happen in 2020. People were making preparations for Ron to go before a firing squad, and then he died of natural causes.
Ron Lafferty's death by firing squad would have been just a complete circus. It would have been a spectacle that would have, I think, taken a terrible toll on Brenda Wright Lafferty's family. I was pleased to hear that he died before that could happen.
CB:Is there any justice in his death, or justice in the end for Brenda and Erica's family?
JK:I don't know. I can't speak for them. I think, yeah, justice was served. I think he was clearly guilty. There's been a lot of people whose lives were just severely traumatized by the Lafferty brothers. Does Ron's death in any way make up for that? No. Might it provide some sense of peace or something approaching closure for the families of the victims? I hope so.