PROVO — Five months after a jury convicted Martin MacNeill of drugging and drowning his wife in a case that garnered nationwide attention, the one-time Pleasant Grove doctor still hasn't been sentenced.
The unusual delay has been triggered by questions concerning his mental competency that arose in a separate sex abuse case.
The former medical director of the Utah State Developmental Center in American Fork has also refused to comply with mental health evaluators, raising further questions about how soon the punishment phase of his murder trial might be resolved. A hearing is set for April 29 — one day after a judge is scheduled to hear the competency evaluation report.
For the family of MacNeill's slain wife Michele, which fought to get the case brought to trial, the delay in the sentencing has been upsetting and frustrating.
Convicted of murder and obstruction of justice, MacNeill faces a possible life sentence.
“We want to move forward more than anybody, but we also don’t want to be hasty in the way we handle this,” deputy Utah County attorney Sam Pead told the Deseret News. “We want to protect the verdict.”
Competency issues were not raised in MacNeill’s murder trial, which began last October and ran for four weeks. But less than a month after his conviction, the 58-year-old doctor and attorney attempted suicide, slicing open his femoral artery with the blade from a disposable razor. Since then he’s been kept in an isolation cell in the Utah County Jail under 24-hour surveillance and his physical and mental health have declined, defense attorney Randall Spencer has said.
“His condition is bad and worsening,” Spencer wrote in a January petition asking for an evaluation of MacNeill’s mental fitness. “He does not seem to care about the pending trial or how it may affect him.”
MacNeill is charged with forcible sexual abuse, a second-degree felony, stemming from allegations brought by his daughter, Alexis Somers, in the months following her mother’s death.
Spencer represents MacNeill in both the murder and the sexual abuse case, which had been set for a trial in February. And although he raised the competency question, Spencer said he also told Judge Derek Pullan he didn’t think it should delay sentencing in the murder trial. He contends that prosecutors want the issue resolved before sentencing out of concern that it could affect an appeal of the murder case.
Utah County prosecutors did oppose the competency petition. But once granted by a judge, Pead said such petitions have the effect of halting any other pending cases for a defendant.
“Once a petition is filed, we have very little say in it,” he said.
Over the 30 years that Linda Cluff has known MacNeill, she said he's never been considered incompetent, despite his claims that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as a young adult. Cluff — a sister of Michele MacNeill — believes Martin MacNeill is using his medical knowledge to feign a mental health issue and keep himself out of prison.
"He definitely knows what he's doing," Cluff said Tuesday. "He is a sociopath. He is completely competent and he just plays games to get what he wants."
Competency isn’t the only issue that has delayed a final judgment in MacNeill’s murder case. Separately, Spencer has asked the judge to overturn the conviction and dismiss the case, because he believes a prosecution witnesses lied on the stand.
In court papers, Spencer contends that Michael Buchanan — a federal prisoner referred to as Inmate No. 1 during the trail — committed perjury when he testified he had not sought a deal to secure an early release from prison in exchange for his testimony. Spencer contends the deal — which was in documents and telephone call transcripts obtained post-trial from the federal Bureau of Prisons — was not disclosed by prosecutors before MacNeill’s trial per a judge’s order.
Spencer says this “new evidence” shows prosecutors agreed to write for Buchanan a “letter of leniency for governmental assistance” to a federal judge in exchange for his cooperation in late September. Recorded calls from the Utah County Jail just before Buchanan testified also indicate an agreement was in place, Spencer told the Deseret News.
Buchanan, who was released from federal prison in December, a month after he testified, was one of two prosecution witnesses to testify that MacNeill had confessed to killing his wife while he served time in federal prison for fraud. Spencer said he believes prosecutors were “absolutely deliberate” in their actions.
“He’s the only person that had any direct evidence of what happened on April 11,” said Spencer, referring to the day in 2007 when Michele MacNeill died in her bathtub. “They really wanted his testimony.”
Pead dismisses Spencer’s claims as “patently false.” The Utah County Attorney’s Office had indeed said it was “willing” to write a letter if Buchanan testified, but had not promised it in advance, nor promised that the inmate would realize any actual benefit.
“We are state prosecutors. He is a federal inmate. We have no authority over him, it’s a separate sovereignty,” Pead said. “(Spencer) is saying we had a deal to get him out of federal prison. We have neither the ability to do that, nor did we agree to do that.”
Pead contends that affidavits filed with the court from Buchanan’s attorney and the U.S. Attorney’s Office that handled his case support the county’s position.
It’s not clear how long it might be before Pullan might address Spencer’s claims. In the absence of a dismissal, Spencer has asked the judge to order a new trial.
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