ST. GEORGE – A somber mood set over the courtroom Wednesday as friends and family of 2010 murder victim Jerrica Christensen addressed the court before the judge passed sentencing on Brandon Perry Smith, the man convicted of killing the 20-year-old Leeds resident over six years ago.
Fifth District Judge G. Michael Westfall sentenced the 35-year-old Smith to a prison term of 15 years to life for killing Christensen, an action that translated to a first-degree felony count of murder.
Christensen was killed Dec. 11, 2010, in an incident that also resulted in the slaying of 27-year-old Brandie Jerden by Paul Ashton. Ashton pleaded guilty to killing Jerden in 2013 and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Smith originally faced a similar fate until the jury reduced the first-degree aggravated murder charge he faced to first-degree murder when he was convicted in February.
With the reduction, Smith could be paroled in the early 2030s.
Smith had also faced the possibility of the death penalty for a time. However, the Washington County Attorney’s Office dropped the death penalty at the request of Christensen’s family due to concerns it would unnecessarily prolong court proceedings.
After the jury convicted Smith for murder, Gary Pendleton, Smith’s attorney, said the defense planned to file an appeal in order to address items they believe “were decided wrongly in this case.”
“We may have to make some more appearances,” Christensen’s mother, Ellen Hensley, said following the sentencing, “but if we have to, we will because Jerrica is worth it.”
As he had done throughout a two week trial earlier this year, Smith kept his head bowed. Instead of sporting a suit and being clean-shaven as he had during the trial, Smith has grown a beard and once again wore an inmate jumpsuit.
All the while, as Smith sat at a table with Pendleton, friends and family of Christensen stood before the court and shared how the murder had affected them.
“The guilt you feel for not being at home to protect your family is overwhelming,” said Elvin Hensley, Christensen’s father.
Elvin Hensley told the court he was deployed in Afghanistan with the Marine Corps from July 2010 until learning about his daughter’s death via emails received from home after a communications blackout was lifted.
“’Please, please, please call me. Jerrica is dead. She was killed at 3:15 a.m. She was murdered. This is not a joke,’” he said as he recited the words of one of the emails sent from his wife. “’… I need you at home as soon as possible. Please, please, please.’”
While seeing death on the battlefield can be a seemingly daily occurrence and is prepared for and accepted to a point given what soldiers have committed to do, there still is the anticipation that the family is safe as home, Elvin Hensley said.
“For weeks, all you can do is try to make sense of it, but the sense never comes, and normalcy is gone forever,” he said, noting his initial disbelief and acceptance of Christensen’s death. “But you have to learn to live with it.”
He then expressed his frustration over the case taking so long to wrap up in court. For over six years he and his family have been waiting for their ordeal to end, only to learn it may not be completely over due to the likelihood of appeals.
“I promise, we will be fighting for justice for Jerrica as long as we have breath in our bodies,” Elvin Hensley said.
Kim Hansom, Christensen’s sister, said her life was forever changed the day her sister was killed.
“I became an only child Dec. 11, 2010. I lost my only sister,” Hansom said.
Christensen will never know Hansom’s husband and her children, she said, adding she’ll never be able to do anything with her sister again because of her death.
“(This) isn’t something I wish on anyone,” Hansom said. “It’s completely unfair that Jerrica lost her life the way that she did, and because of this my family has to suffer.”
Ellen Hensley spoke with emotion in her voice as she addressed the court.
“This is the thing I’ve been waiting for, for six and a half years and it’s been what’s terrified me the most,” she said.
“Two weeks before Christmas of 2010, she (Christensen) was basically butchered,” Ellen Hensley said. “It was the worst Christmas a mother could ever have. It was grueling to have to return her Christmas presents.”
The night before she was killed, Christensen made choices that no one could have imagined would ultimately prove fatal, her mother said.
Instead of choosing to stay home and make Christmas treats with her mother, Christensen decided to have dinner with her boyfriend, James Fiske, instead. That would lead to her going to the St. George home of Paul Ashton where Fiske had been asked to help move out a friend who had been renting a room there.
“I also made choices the night she died,” Ellen Hensley said. “I chose to text some strong words to my daughter in frustration that she was missing out on our planned evening. I choose not to simply drive to St. George, pick her up, and take her home. I chose to be angry she would not return my calls or answer my texts that night. The next day I never would have dreamed I was texting and calling and leaving messages to my deceased child.”
A St. George Police officer would appear at the Hensley home the next day to inform Ellen Hensley that her daughter was dead.
“Never again will she come home,” she said. “My family has lived and relived this nightmare for six and a half years. Every time we come back to this courthouse, the scab is picked open and we feel the pain again.”
Pendleton said he was torn as he wished he could express his condolences to Christensen’s family, yet noted it likely wouldn’t be received well based on previous interactions between them. He also said that three apology letters Smith had written over the last five years wouldn’t be read in court as it was counterproductive from a legal standpoint.
Smith also did not address the court per Pendleton’s advisement.
Though present in the courtroom, none of Smith’s family chose to address the court.
The night of Dec. 11, 2010, Fiske and Christensen went to the home of Ashton to help move Jerden and her boyfriend out of Ashton’s condo. Jerden’s boyfriend was not present at the time the murders occurred after 3 a.m. that night.
Ashton and Jerden got into an altercation in which Jerden slammed a plastic toolbox against Ashton’s head. In response, Ashton shot her and Fiske with a gun provided by Smith. Jerden was killed while Fiske was wounded.
Throughout the court process, the defense argued that Ashton manipulated Smith. Prior to the shooting, Ashton sent Smith a series of texts saying he felt his life was in danger due to people finding out he had been a drug informant for the police. In response to this Smith drove to Ashton’s home and supplied him with a revolver while Smith also brought a pistol for himself.
The defense said Smith was terrified of Ashton after witnessing two people get shot, and wasn’t sure what would happen to him if he didn’t do what Ashton said.
During this time Christensen had locked herself in a bathroom in the back of the condo. Ashton told Smith “to take care of her” – as in silencing her somehow. This ultimately resulting in Smith’s killing Christensen after beating her, strangling her and cutting her throat.
The way Christensen was killed is what originally led to prosecutors seeking the death penalty in the case.
“Justice was served. It didn’t do anything to bring Jerrica back. She’s still gone,” Ellen Hensley said following the sentencing.
“Our family will move forward and try to heal as best as we can,” she said.
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