ST. GEORGE – The defense in the ongoing Brandon Smith trial experienced increasing frustration Friday as evidence they hoped to submit in court was denied. This resulted in Smith’s attorneys summoning the co-defendant in the 2010 double-murder case whom one of the attorneys referred to as “the devil himself.”
Paul Clifford Ashton, 37, is currently serving a life sentence without possibility of parole for the murder of Brandie Jerden, 27, and the attempted murder of James Fiske in the December 2010 incident. The defense has long argued that he manipulated and intimidated Smith into killing 20-year-old Jerrica Christensen.
According to court documents and testimony, Ashton, who had been cooperating with police as an informant, feared he had been exposed and asked Smith to supply him with a gun for self defense. The same evening an argument between Jerden and Ashton resulted in Ashton shooting and killing Jerden and wounding Fiske. Fiske was able to escape and called police.
Christensen had locked herself in a bathroom in the back of the home and was found by Smith. He is accused of beating the woman with a blunt object, strangling her and slitting her throat with a pocket knife.
Ashton pleaded guilty to killing Jerden in July 2013. A month prior to that he also pleaded guilty in federal court to kidnapping and killing Bradley Eitner in October 2010. Eitner had been a homeless man staying at Ashton’s home and was passed out one evening. Ashton told authorities he beat Eitner and took him out to the Arizona Strip where he shot him and left his body.
Ashton is currently serving a life sentence plus 10 years for the Eitner murder.
The jury was kept out of the courtroom for part of the morning as attorneys Gary Pendleton and Mary Corporon argued for the submission of two items of potential evidence. They both said the items would help them further establish that Smith was manipulated by Ashton into killing Christensen.
Despite their efforts, Judge Michael Westfall ultimately ruled against the items being admitted as evidence.
Frustrated in demeanor and tone, the ruling led Pendleton to grab a prepared transfer order and declare, “We have no other option but to bring the devil here himself.”
Pendleton gave the court a transfer order requesting that Ashton be brought to the court to testify. Given he is serving two life sentences, it remains to be seen if Ashton will be cooperative as he appears to have little to gain or lose in this situation.
Friday was the first day the defense called witnesses; the prosecution rested its case Thursday.
Testimony was given regarding Smith’s nature as a relatively quiet individual who had trouble communicating with others while growing up. He also avoided conflict where possible, sometimes even physically hiding from it. Mention was also made of his having served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and being involved in an LDS congregation geared toward 20-something singles, popularly known at the time as “singles wards.”
At some point Smith evidently got Ashton involved in a singles ward for a time, according to previous testimony given in the court case.
Smith’s older sister, Katrina Smith, tearfully stated how her brother would help anyone out, even Ashton.
If someone was in need of help, whatever the circumstance, Smith would lend a helping hand, Katrina Smith said with emotion in her voice. He would help someone with a blown tire in the Virgin River Gorge or someone like Ashton, whom she implied took advantage of that fact.
According to testimony given throughout the court case, Ashton contacted Smith in the early hours of Dec. 11, 2010, and said he was afraid someone had discovered he had been a confidential informant for the police and was threatening him. In order to have a means of defending himself, he asked Smith to supply him with a gun.
Smith went to Ashton’s home and gave him a .357 magnum resolver, while Smith himself was armed with a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun.
At the time, Jerden was moving the belongings of her and her boyfriend, Matthew McNee, out of Ashton’s home where they had rented a room. Fiske and Christensen, his girlfriend, were helping.
During an ill-tempered exchange with Pendleton, McNee said he didn’t know Smith and didn’t care to. As far as McNee was concerned, Smith was stealing his air, he said.
McNee testified that renting the room was the “biggest mistake” he had ever made, and that the reason for the move was due to learning Ashton “wasn’t who he said he was.” Jerden had learned through a third party that Ashton was a police informant, which enraged McNee at the time. If Jerden and a friend hadn’t convinced him otherwise, he said, he would have gone to Ashton’s home and “stomped a hole in him.”
Instead, he stayed behind while Jerden, Fiske and Christensen went to Ashton’s condominium and started moving stuff out.
As has been previous established, an argument broke out between Ashton and Jerden over a missing bicycle. The argument became physical when Jerden smashed a toolkit of some sort against Ashton’s head, resulting in her and Fiske getting shot.
Fiske would manage to escape and call McNee and the police.
“We’ve been shot, everyone’s been shot,” Fiske told him over the phone, McNee said. McNee then got in a car and sped toward the scene and passed the very spot where police had stopped Ashton along the way.
Once at the scene of the murders, McNee said he was left dumbfounded.
“It hit me in the face with a bunch of emotions,” McNee said, adding that he held Jerden’s lifeless body in his arms before moving on to find Christensen.
McNee then found Fiske who was “bleeding out” from the gunshot wound in his shoulder, McNee said. He threw Fiske in the car and went back to where he had seen the cops earlier, finally seeing where Ashton had ended up as well.
Prior to beginning the day’s testimonies Friday, Westfall shot down two items that the defense said would help establish Ashton’s manipulative nature.
The first item consisted of some text messages Ashton had sent to Smith and an unknown party prior to the murders. The defense argued the texts show Ashton being manipulative. Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap argued they were not credible in this regard and Westfall agreed.
The second item was a conversation had between Smith and St. George Police Officer Thad Feltner while en route to the Washington County Purgatory Correctional Facility. By this time it had been nearly two-and-a-half hours since the conclusion of Smith’s interrogation at the St. George Police Department.
Feltner had asked Smith how he felt when he killed the 20-year-old Christensen and why he did it. According to Feltner’s report, Smith said he felt nothing yet feared that if he didn’t “complete the deed,” Smith would shoot him as he had Jerden and Fiske.
Smith’s attorney read his words as written in Feltner’s reports. “‘He just shot two people, so I thought maybe he’d shoot me,’” Corporon read. He also said the murder didn’t feel good to think or talk about, she said.
Corporon said the conversation gives insight into Smith’s state of mind following the murders and argued the conversation was an extension of the interrogation.
Belnap argued Smith’s statements were not a part of the official interrogation and were hearsay and therefore not admissible.
The state and the defense engaged in a bout of legal debate as case law was argued back and forth. Westfall ultimately called a recess to review case law related to the matter. After doing so, he again ruled in the state’s favor and shot down the defense’s efforts.
Despite Westfall’s ruling, the defense will have a second chance to argue for the statement’s admittance Monday thanks to Belnap’s reviewing details of the interrogation and the time leading up to Smith’s being taken to the county jail.
Belnap presented the court with those details following the lunch recess, leading to Westfall’s allowing the defense another attempt at changing his mind. Given Westfall’s tone at the time, he didn’t seem very thrilled at the prospect of hearing further argument regarding the matter.
While the defense continues its attempts to establish that Ashton manipulated Smith to the point of committing murder, prosecutors argue Smith’s violent actions toward Christensen were heartless and deliberate. Christensen’s bloody slaying is the result of Smith’s own choices and actions and not the product of Ashton’s playing the part of some deranged puppeteer, they argue.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.