ST. GEORGE – A St. George murder case that left two people dead and another injured finally made it to trial Tuesday after six years of multiple delays.
Brandon Perry Smith, 35, is on trial for aggravated murder, a first-degree felony, and aggravated assault with the use of a weapon, a second-degree felony.
Smith is accused of beating Jerrica Christensen, 20, and cutting her throat with a pocketknife just seconds after his friend, Paul Clifford Ashton, shot and wounded her boyfriend, James Fiske, and shot and killed the couple’s friend, 27-year-old Brandie Sue Dawn Jerden. Smith faces the aggravated assault charge for allegedly pointing the gun at Fiske in the same 2010 incident.
Ashton, 37, was sentenced three years later in 2013 to life without the possibility of parole for killing Jerden. That same week, he was also sentenced to life plus 10 years after pleading guilty in federal court to kidnapping a homeless man and aiding in his murder in 2010. He is serving both in federal prison.
The prosecution initially intended to seek the death penalty if Smith is found guilty by the jury of four women and six men, two of whom are as-yet-undeclared alternates. However, the prosecution and Christensen’s mother, Ellen Hensley, agreed last year to drop the death penalty in hopes the process would be sped up. At the time, the defense was preparing arguments showing the death penalty in Utah is unconstitutional, which could have extended the process even further into the future.
The events that led up to the deaths of Jerden and Christensen were revisited during Tuesday’s trial as Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap and defense attorney Gary Pendleton gave their opening arguments.
While speaking to the jury, Belnap and Pendleton both reviewed similar background information about the events of the night in question albeit each had a different story when arguing the defendant’s motive.
Belnap argued Smith’s actions were nothing more than that of a coldhearted killer who enjoyed taking the life of a stranger. Pendleton maintained, however, that his client only killed the women because he felt threatened by Ashton.
During a brief recess, Pendleton acknowledged to St. George News that he believed his client had only committed the acts under the pressure and influence of Ashton.
According to the attorneys’ opening arguments, Jerden and her boyfriend, who was not there the night of the murders, were renting a room from Ashton but decided to move out after learning that he wasn’t who they thought he was.
Ashton was a confidential drug informant for the St. George Police Department who was no longer in the good graces of the police because he was still using drugs and later found to be taking money intended for the drug purchases that were being overseen by law enforcement. During this same period, he had also lost his reputation among his friends in the drug culture.
Fiske was the first to testify at Tuesday’s trial, enduring around three hours of grilling examination that brought back a flood of memories of the events of that night that led to the death of his girlfriend.
As the only witness to survive that night, Fiske was able to give a detailed account of the events at Ashton’s condo near the intersection of Main Street and 600 South. However, the prosecution told the jury that Fiske remembers Smith shooting him but that his memory does not match the evidence in the case.
“James will tell you that he thinks Brandon Smith shot Brandie and James, because at the very moment that Paul Ashton shot Brandie, James Fiske saw Brandon Smith pull Brandon’s handgun and point it directly at James Fiske,” Belnap said during opening arguments to the jury. “And James was fixated on Brandon Smith’s handgun. … (But) the evidence will show that it was actually Paul Ashton who shot Brandie and who shot James.”
Fiske had arrived with Christensen, his girlfriend, at Ashton’s home between 12:30-1 a.m. that day to help Jerden and her boyfriend move out.
After returning from taking a load of items to the new home where Jerden’s boyfriend was staying, Fiske said Jerden was angry at Ashton and was calling him a thief and other names, then got in his face about it.
“She was going ballistic?” Pendleton asked during a cross-examination; Fiske answered she was.
The argument between Jerden and Ashton lasted about 10 minutes, Fiske estimated, before Jerden smashed what has been described as a tool box or tool kit of some kind into the side of Ashton’s head.
That is when Jerden was shot. Fiske saw her fall down out of the corner of his eye, he said, and threw up his arms and was turning around when he was shot and dropped to the floor.
Fiske said he was unconscious for around 10 seconds become coming to and hearing Ashton tell Smith to “get the girl in the back.” Christensen had been in the bathroom where Smith found and killed her.
Fiske, who was shot in the shoulder, was able to escape the house and hide behind some bushes across the street. Afraid for his life, he watched to see if anyone was coming after him. He then rolled under an open garage door to hide himself further and called 911, and ultimately knocked on someone’s door in the area to tell dispatchers where the incident had occurred.
Pendleton asked Fiske if anyone had asked if his perception of events may have been tainted due to the fear and stress caused by the incident.
“Would you agree you were in a highly-charged emotional state?” Pendleton asked Fiske, who said yes.
“How is your memory of those events?” Deputy County Attorney Ryan Shaum asked Fiske, noting how much time had passed since then.
“It’s hit and miss,” Fiske said, though noted after a follow-up question from Pendleton that he was remembering parts better after reviewing previous testimony he had given.
Two officers who were with the St. George Police Department at the time of the incident also testified Tuesday and gave details related to stopping Ashton at an apartment complex near his home.
One of the officers described how Ashton had originally claimed the incident was “self defense” while the other spoke to examining a .357 magnum revolver found in Ashton’s truck. That gun is alleged to have been used to shoot Fiske and kill Jerden.
The trial continues Wednesday with additional testimony from police officers, Belnap said following the day’s conclusion in court.
St. George News senior reporter Mori Kessler contributed to this story
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