Defense testimony in murder case questions Smith’s ability to reason

Brandon Perry Smith sits among his attorneys with head lowered during much of the multi-day trial for the part he allegedly played in a 2010 double murder in St. George. He is accused of killing Jerrica Christensen in December 2010 during an altercation at the home of Paul Ashton, who is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of Brandie Sue Dawn Jerden, who was killed during the same incident, St. George, Utah, Jan. 31, 2017 | Photo by Chris Caldwell via the Utah court pool, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – A forensic neuropsychologist and former university drama teacher shared their interactions and insights into Brandon Smith’s character and behavior Monday as Smith’s murder trial entered its second week.

Co-defendant Paul Ashton also made an appearance on the witness stand, though ultimately pleaded his right to silence under the Fifth Amendment.

The courtroom was quiet as Ashton took the witness stand Monday. Currently serving a life sentence for his part in the 2010 double-murder, Ashton rose his chained right hand as high as he could and took the oath before invoking the Fifth Amendment.

double homicide st. george utah
Paul Ashton Smith, booking photo circa December 2010. During his brief appearance in court Monday, he wore a white prison jumpsuit, a beard and glasses. | Photo courtesy of the St. George Police Department

Ashton, 37, is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for shooting and killing 27-year-old Brandie Jerden and the attempted murder of James Fiske in the early hours of Dec. 11, 2010. He pleaded guilty to killing Jerden and was sentenced in 2013.

Read more: Summoning ‘the devil’: Defense in Smith murder trial calls co-defendant to appear

He is also serving a life sentence attached to an unrelated murder that occurred in October 2010 and was prosecuted in federal court.

Smith’s defense called Ashton to testify in hopes of further establishing before the court that Ashton had manipulated Smith into murdering 20-year-old Jerrica Christensen following the shooting of Fiske and Jerden.

Smith pleaded not guilty to his part in the murders in 2015.

Read more: 6 years after murders, Smith trial begins

“I believe Mr. Ashton will invoke his (Fifth Amendment) right,” Douglas Terry, Ashton’s attorney, told the court prior to Ashton’s brief appearance. “I think we would be remiss if we advise him otherwise.”

Though Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap made Ashton an offer of prosecutorial immunity that he argued applied to the state and federal level if he chose to testify, Ashton still refused to testify.

“That was a horrible night,” Ashton said, adding that the actions of it are something he has to live with. He apologized to Jerden as though she were present and then made a string of apologies to everyone who had been impacted by his choices that fateful night.

“I’ve taken accountability. I live with this every single say,” he said. “And living with that, I’ve got to find a saving grace. I took my fair play in this one and I’m pleading the Fifth.”

Read more: Ashton pleads guilty in 2010 murder case

That morning the defense called Dr. Vickie Gregory, a Salt Lake City-based forensic neuropsychologist, to testify concerning the results of an assessment she had conducted on Smith.

Gregory testified that she spent over 13 hours interviewing Smith and putting him through a battery of tests. In addition to that, she has also reviewed his school and college records and previous family interviews.

5th District Judge Michael Westfall (background) hears argument from defense counsel Gary Pendleton (foreground) Friday as to why he should allow evidence showing suspect Brandon Smith was afraid co-defendant Paul Ashton would shoot him as he just had two other people if he “didn’t complete the deed” leading to 20-year-old Jerrica Christensen’s death on Dec. 11, 2010. St. George, Utah, Feb. 3, 2017 | Photo by Kevin Jenkins via Utah court pool, St. George News

While test scores showed Smith as being of average intelligence, his ability to process information was lower than average. Testing in this regard placed him at the 14th percentile, Gregory said, placing him near the bottom.

Read more: Death penalty dropped from 2010 double-murder case

“That’s a significant impairment,” Gregory said. “It takes him longer to process information than the rest of the population. This is a problem he’s had throughout his life.”

She pointed to school records that indicated Smith had been placed in resource classes from elementary through to high school in order to help him pass grades and graduate. Along the way, different teachers had requested he be evaluated for possible disorders, but apparently that did not come to pass.

Though Smith did go on to attend Dixie State University and graduated with a degree in human communications, that had not been without its own difficulties, Gregory said.

Smith’s impairment, as she saw it, had saddled Smith with a learning disability along with an inability to understand social context and social cues or quite comprehend the impact his actions can have.

“He doesn’t have much insight into himself,” Gregory said, further stating that Smith has no solid sense of identity, making it easy for someone to manipulate him into doing something he may not want to do otherwise.

When defense counsel Mary Corporon asked for Gregory’s assessment of Smith, she said she believed he had unspecified neurocognitive and neurodevelopmental disorders. Smith displayed behaviors consistent with someone with a possible autism spectrum disorder or frontal lobe impairment, though she was not sure of the possible origin of it.

L-R Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap and Deputy Washington County Attorney Ryan Shaum. Both have represented the state’s position that Brandon Smith’s killing of 20-year-old Jerrica Christensen was cold and deliberate and not the result of Paul Ashton’s manipulations, St. George, Utah, Feb. 3, 2017 | Photo by Kevin Jenkins via Utah court pool, St. George News

“He has a degree of autism,” Gregory said, yet fell short of diagnosing him with an autism spectrum disorder overall.

Read more: Defense seeks to suppress police interview in 2010 double-murder case

The defense replayed the Dec. 11, 2010, interrogation between Smith and St. George Police Detective Chris Trani in which Smith confessed to killing Christensen. However, Gregory pointed at different parts of the interrogation where she felt Smith didn’t quite understand “the big picture” of what was going on.

“I don’t believe Mr. Smith accurately assessed the severity of the situation,” Gregory said, noting that there were times Smith made abnormal facial expressions, such as smiling while discussing the fatal events of that December morning.

“Well, that was an experience,” Smith said during the interrogation, smiling at some point soon after.

“Again, it doesn’t appear to me he appreciates the situation,” Gregory said, adding that she didn’t believe Smith quite understood the fact the detective had informed him of his Miranda rights, particularly that of having an attorney present.

The replay of the interrogation continued as Smith said in a relatively calm tone that Ashton told him to get Christensen after Jerden and Fiske had been shot. Smith went to the back and kicked in the door of the bathroom where Christensen was. He had originally meant to just knock her out, he said, but ended up beating her with a “piece of crap” pipe that “was very ineffective.”

Smith would go on to strangle Christensen and cut her throat with a knife. At one point during the beating, Smith said he noticed Christensen was “in a lot of pain” and “trying to scream.”

It appeared to me he did not understand the seriousness of the situation, or what he had done,” Gregory said, adding at one point that Smith appeared more concerned with losing his license to conceal carry a gun and less about the events of that morning.

Varlo Davenport, a long-time drama instructor who taught at Dixie State University (and is currently suing the school) had Smith enrolled in a beginning acting class.

He proved to be the “most difficult student” he ever had, Davenport said. This was due to Smith’s not being able to “get into character” in a sense. The imagination and feeling needed to do it just didn’t seem the be there, he said.

There was not a lot a lot of access to the depth of his emotions,” Davenport said. “My impression was he was limited to the here and now.”

While sharing his interactions with Smith, deputy Washington County Attorney Ryan Shaum pointed out Davenport was not a psychologist and that his scope of experience with Smith was rather limited.

Witness testimony continues Tuesday, with the trial set to conclude by Friday if not before.

Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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