ST. GEORGE – Was it a murder done by willful and deliberate choice or was it caused by fear and compulsion? That is the question ultimately put before the jury after two weeks of reviewing the role Brandon Perry Smith in the tragic events of Dec. 11, 2010, that claimed two lives and forever impacted others.
For around two hours Thursday afternoon the jury heard closing arguments from the prosecution and defense. By 4 p.m. those arguments came to an end. No more evidence to be submitted and no more testimony to be given as Judge G. Michael Westfall sent the jury into deliberations for the rest of the day.
After four hours, the jury was sent home for the night and will reconvene Friday morning.
Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap and Deputy Washington County Attorney Ryan Shaum told the jury that Smith’s actions were his own and not the result of coercion by codefendant and convicted killer Paul Ashton. Instead, they argued that Ashton and Smith originally had a plan to take Jerrica Christensen and others out to the desert and kill them.
Christensen’s death was ultimately the result of Smith wanting to silence a potential witness, the prosecution said.
“He did it to silence Jerrica Christensen,” Shaum said. “He committed a heinous act of murder …. His own decisions and his own choices caused him to commit aggravated murder and aggravated assault.”
Conversely, defense attorney Gary Pendleton and co-counsel Mary Corporon argued that Ashton, whom Pendleton has previously referred to as “the devil,” intimidated Smith into committing murder.
“Brandon Smith killed Jerrica Christensen, but he didn’t do it because he wanted to silence her,” Pendleton said. “He killed her because he was afraid. He was afraid to say ‘no’ to somebody (Ashton) who he had just seen shoot two people.”
Both the state and the defense retold the events surrounding the Dec. 11, 2010, murders of Christensen and 27-year-old Brandie Jerden and the shooting of James Fiske, Christensen’s boyfriend.
Ashton had sent a series of text messages to Smith asking for “a piece,” a firearm, in order to protect himself from people who, he said, had found out he had been a confidential informant for the Washington County Drug Task Force. Smith had urged him to contact police or relocate himself for a while. Ashton rejected the ideas and kept asking for a gun.
“It’s my life or theirs,” Ashton said finally.
Smith relented and proceeded leave the home in Santa Clara where he was looking after a co-worker’s dogs and went home to Bloomington Hills to retrieve a revolver for Ashton and a gun for himself.
Pendleton said Smith had sympathy for Ashton situation due to knowing his background.
Ashton had been shot multiple times and left for dead in Ogden by gang members some years prior. He moved to St. George to supposedly start a new life. He started getting involved in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and attended a “singles ward” where he met Smith and others. They would hang out with each other and participate in church functions until Ashton’s darker side evidently began to manifest itself.
A hair-raising bout of road rage that triggered a traffic accident and having his home raided by the drug task force were among the incidents that caused those friends to begin to distance themselves. Smith attempted to do the same, Pendleton said, and referred to testimony given by Smith’s older sister, Katrina Smith, of his asking others to say he wasn’t home when Ashton came calling.
However, Shaum argued, if Smith wanted to avoid Ashton so badly, he simply could have said “no.” Instead he chose to drive home and retrieve two guns because he was anticipating running into a “violent encounter.”
Pointing to the text exchange between Smith and Ashton, Belnap said it was evidence that Smith had become a willing part of “the entire criminal objective” initiated by Ashton.
Smith arrived at Ashton’s home and gave him the gun. During that time Christensen and Fiske where helping Jerden move out as she and her boyfriend had been renting a room from Ashton.
Read more: 6 years after murders, Smith trial begins
Ashton started suggesting ways to get rid of Christensen and the others, like knocking them out and dropping them off in the desert, Pendleton said, arguing this didn’t happen because Smith didn’t go along with it.
The state maintains, however, Smith was a willing party to eliminating witnesses.
Soon after, Jerden and Ashton got into a heated argument that became physical when Jerden smashed what has been described as a plastic toolkit into the side of Ashton’s head.
Smith drew his own gun more as a way to try and get people to calm down than to actually shoot somebody, Pendleton said. The gun ended up pointed at Fiske. This is the basis for the aggravated assault charge Smith faces.
Two shots rang out and Jerden and Fiske were on the ground. Fiske sustained a gunshot wound to the shoulder while Jerden was killed. Ashton is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for Jerden’s murder.
Read more: Ashton pleads guilty in 2010 murder case
Fiske testified at the beginning of the trial that he played dead after being dazed for a few seconds. When he came to, he said, he heard Ashton shouting at Smith to “get the girl in the back.” Fiske was able to escape and subsequently contact police.
Smith proceeded to kick in the bathroom door and kill Christensen. The state calls it a cold, calculated act, while the defense calls it an act committed under extreme emotional distress.
“Paul (Ashton) wasn’t in that bathroom,” Shaum said to the jury as he made a run through the actions that led to Christensen’s death. Smith hit Christensen multiple times with a wrench bar breaker that he told police was “very ineffective,” attempted to suffocate her and ultimately cut her throat, causing her to bleed out.
“Those are the actions of one person, and that is the defendant Brandon Smith,” Shaum said.
Smith was able to slip away from the scene and avoid running into police after the murder. He returned home and took time to change out of his bloody clothes, Shaum said. He didn’t contact police until he heard from a family member that they were looking for him.
Pendleton said testimony given during the trial may have implied to the jury that his client “was stupid,” and that is not the case at all. He nonetheless referred to Smith as being “a little different.”
Previous testimony was given by forensic neuropsychologist Dr. Vickie Gregory. After interviewing Smith and subjecting him to a battery of tests, Gregory believes he may have an unspecified neurocognitive disorder that slowed his ability process information and hampered his ability “to see the big picture.”
If Smith has any sort of deficit to him, Pendleton said, he has a deficit in guile. He also argued Smith lacked the ability to recognize the evil that lurks in the hearts of others or the evil that crossed his path in the person of Ashton.
The prosecution asked the jury to find Ashton guilty of aggravated murder and aggravated assault; the defense asked them to consider a lesser charge of manslaughter.
“The actions and the evidence in this case show Jerrica Christensen was killed in a particularly cruel, heinous manner,” Belnap said. “We ask you to find Mr. Smith guilty of aggravated murder.”
Pendleton didn’t excuse the crime but said there were factors that didn’t lend to a charge of aggravated murder, which he further started is a charge generally reserved for the worst of offenders. Instead, he asked the jury to give Smith a conviction that fits the crime given the mitigating circumstances.
“There’s no doubt this was a terrible, terrible thing,” Pendleton said. “I can’t stop what happened that night. I can only hope we don’t compound the tragedy by convicting this man of aggravated murder.”
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