ST. GEORGE – Opposing sides in a 2010 double-murder case met in 5th District Court in St. George Friday to argue for and against a motion to quash an order issued by a previous judge that paved the way for the death penalty if the defendant, Brandon Perry Smith, is ultimately found guilty of aggravated murder.
After hearing the arguments, Judge G. Michael Westfall, who presides over the case, said he would take the matter under advisement and issue a written judgment.
Under Utah law, the state can seek the death penalty in relation to aggravated murders. Such incidents are considered aggravated by the state if circumstances surrounding the murder are considered “heinous” or “depraved” in nature.
Smith is accused of killing 20-year-old Jerrica Christensen Dec. 11, 2010. She was the third victim in an incident that also led to the murder of 27-year-old Brandie Jerden and attempted murder of James Fiske. In September 2013, Smith’s codefendant, Paul Ashton, pleaded guilty to murdering Jerden and attempting to kill Fiske.
Just over four years later, Smith now faces the possibility of a death penalty if convicted on a charge of first-degree aggravated murder.
Gary Pendleton, Smith’s lawyer, filed a motion to quash the order issued by retired Judge James Shumate that bound Smith over for trial on the aggravated charges following a multiday preliminary hearing held in late 2013.
Pendleton argued before Westfall that the state had not met the burden of proof needed to justify the current charges his client faces. He also said the state had consciously chosen not to further examine potentially exculpatory evidence related to text messages between Ashton and Smith prior to the murders.
The conversation between Ashton and Smith showed that Smith was manipulated into going to Ashton’s condo the day of the murders, Pendleton said.
Over the text messages, Pendleton said, Ashton told Smith he was scared that he had been exposed as an informant for the Washington County Drug Task Force and was going to be killed. In response to this, Smith went to Ashton’s condo to give him a handgun for self-defense. He also packed a handgun for himself.
Deputy Washington County Attorney Ryan Shaum said the text messages did not show manipulation taking place.
According to court documents, Jerden and her boyfriend were living with Ashton at the time and were moving out. Fiske and Christensen were there lending a hand. Ashton allegedly viewed the three as a threat and concocted a plan to knock them out and take them into the desert where they could be disposed of.
The state argued Smith was a willing participant in the plan which would have ultimately resulted in the deaths of all three people if events hadn’t taken a different course.
Before the alleged plan could take place, Jerden and Ashton got into an argument that resulted in Jerden allegedly hitting Ashton with a tool box. In response, Ashton shot and killed Jerden, and then shot Fiske who was able to escape. He shot the two in front of Smith and, according to court documents, told him to go after Christensen who had locked himself in the bathroom of the master bedroom.
Pendleton wrote in his motion to quash that Smith told police he just wanted to knock Christensen out, but it didn’t work out that way. All the while, he said, Ashton kept yelling at Smith to “Get her” and “Do it.” Sometime during the exchange, Smith handed his own handgun to Ashton.
According to medical testimony given during the preliminary hearing, Christensen suffered blunt-force trauma to her head, strangulation, and had her throat cut.
Pendleton argued that, based on a time line of events, as well as testimony given by a medical examiner, Christensen likely died within a few minutes of the initial injuries inflicted. None of the injuries suggested Smith inflicted them to cause Christensen pain, he said. The state claims otherwise.
“The state advances their theory that Mr. Smith killed Christensen to silence a witness,” Pendleton said “He had no other reason to kill her.”
Pendleton has maintained throughout the case that his client’s actions were manipulated and coerced by Ashton, which ultimately contributed to Christensen’s death.
“What was the purpose here?” Shaum said. “The purpose could be to silence a witness. That’s exactly what happened in this case.”
Smith knew Ashton already had murder on his mind due to the alleged plan to take the three victims into the desert, Shaum said. The prosecution has argued that Smith accepted Ashton’s plan and was willing to carry it out.
Because of the way Christensen was killed, the prosecution pinned Smith with aggravated murder and called Christensen’s death a heinous act.
If Smith had wanted to kill Christensen quickly, Shaum said, without causing her any pain, he could have just shot her. Instead, he gave Ashton the gun and kept beating Christensen, he said.
Westfall told Shaum that the focus of the state seemed to be more on the way Christensen was killed and not necessarily Smith’s intent or state of mind. He said earlier in the hearing that someone could reasonably infer that “he basically botched” the first few attempts to kill Christensen until he found something that worked.
“He was either enjoying himself or being extremely callous in the act of killing,” Shaum said. “The manner of death shows a depraved mind.”
Shaum also pointed to a “flippant statement” allegedly made by the defendant while dealing with Christensen, saying that “movies lie” about how easy it supposedly is to kill someone.
“There is no evidence that shows these attempts were done out of enjoyment,” Pendleton said during a rebuttal to Shaum’s argument.
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