Nearly a decade after Cody Lynn Nielsen was ordered to spend the rest of his life in prison for kidnapping, killing, dismembering and burying a 15-year-old Hyrum girl, the convicted killer asked the Utah Supreme Court to grant him a new trial.
Five Supreme Court justices took the appeal under advisement Thursday after hearing from the state and Nielsen's attorney, who pointed to six issues he said should warrant a new trial for his client in the grisly murder of Trisha Ann Autry.
Among Nielsen's six points was the fact that the 1st District judge who presided over Nielsen's 2004 trial didn't follow his own order to move the case from Logan to an out-of-county courthouse. This issue seemed to pique the interest of the justices, who spent the better part of Thursday's hearing asking both sides to elaborate on their positions.
"Here we have someone who should not have been on the case anymore continuing to make decisions," said defense attorney Craig Peterson. "The judge broke the law. ... The court did not do what was required of them."
Assistant Utah Attorney General Karen Klucznik contended that although Judge Clint Judkins failed to move the trial out of a Cache County courthouse, the 12-person jury was bused in from Box Elder County and the jurors were screened thoroughly to ensure against prior knowledge and bias.
When asked by the justices Thursday whether Nielsen was a victim of prejudice at his trial, Peterson paused for a moment. He thought, took a breath and admitted, "No."
This, Klucznik said, is the exactly why Nielsen's appeal should be denied.
"Even if the judge had moved the case, the results would have likely been the same because the jury would have been the same," Klucznik saidafter the hearing. "It was a horrendous crime. And we're hopeful the court will affirm Mr. Nielsen's conviction in the very near future."
The court took the case under advisement and will issue their decision at a later time.
Should Nielsen's conviction be overturned, the now-41-year-old man will be granted a new trial.
Although the case was originally tried as a capital murder case, the death penalty would not be an option should the case return before a jury, Klucznik said.
Several family members of Nielsen's 15-year-old victim attended Thursday's hearing, holding hands and listening intently as each side made their case before the court.
The victim's older sister, Heather Autry, said the nearly 13-year legal process since Trisha disappeared from her Hyrum home has taken a toll on her family.
The girls' mother, JoAnn Autry, died several years after seeing Nielsen convicted in her daughter's murder.
"We got what we wanted we wanted to get Cody off the streets," the sister said. "We knew there would be appeals, but it's still hard. I'm glad it took 13 years before that happened."
Heather Autry said though her family dreads another trial, they're prepared to do what they must to ensure justice for Trisha.
"We never really got to know what Trisha would have been like, who she might have become," Heather Autry said. "She disappeared when she was so young. ... That's really the hardest part."
Trisha Autry disappeared in June 2000 from her Hyrum home. Police originally treated the girl as a runaway until evidence of foul play began to pile up.
Nielsen took Autry to the Millville coyote research facility where he worked as a maintenance man, according to trial evidence.
While there, Nielsen killed the teen, dismembering her using a knife, ax and a hacksaw, and buried her using a backhoe tractor, prosecutors contended at trial. Months later, he dug up the remains, burned them in a fire, crushed them with the tractor's tires and reburied them.
The charred remains as well as a mostly intact jawbone, the girl's shoes, bra and shredded underwear were discovered almost a year later by cadaver-sniffing dogs. Prosecutors believe Nielsen had kept the jawbone for a timeas a trophy from the slaying.
Nielsen told Cache County sheriff's officers in a January 2003 jailhouse interview that he and the 15-year-old girl had consensual sex before Autry died accidentally by falling from the balcony of one of the buildings. He said he panicked and tried to hide her body.
The Utah Supreme Court will look at all six claims made by Nielsen's attorney before issuing a decision.
The defense's petition also includes a claim that Nielsen's attorneys did not adequately represent him in part because they did not challenge the judge as to why the trial wasn't being transferred and a claim that a prior conviction the prosecution used in the case as an aggravator against Nielsen wasn't properly explained to the jury.