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Defense Attorney Gary Pendleton, murder suspect Brandon Smith and Private Investigator Todd Gubler during a hearing in Smith's aggravated murder case in 5th District Court in St. George, Utah, on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013.
St. George slaying: Self-defense or coldhearted murder?
St. George slaying » Defense says Brandon Perry Smith shouldn’t face a potential death penalty charge.
First Published Jul 14 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Jul 14 2014 04:55 pm

When Brandon Perry Smith allegedly killed a woman one December night in 2010, was it because his own life was threatened — or is he a coldhearted murderer who relished taking the life of a stranger?

The prosecution and defense cast the 32-year-old Washington County man in different lights in recent court filings, in which Smith is asking a judge to reverse the decision to send him to trial on a capital aggravated-murder charge.

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Smith is charged in 5th District Court with aggravated murder and aggravated assault in the stabbing death of 20-year-old Jerrica Christensen. Prosecutors announced in January that they are seeking the death penalty for Smith.

In court papers filed in May, defense attorney Gary Pendleton implied that Smith killed the woman because he felt threatened by his friend Paul Clifford Ashton, who had just shot and killed one woman and shot and wounded another man. But prosecutors argued in a response motion filed in late June that Smith should be charged with aggravated murder because he independently decided to beat, strangle and ultimately slice Christensen’s throat with a pocketknife.

The slaying was especially heinous, Deputy Washington County Attorney Brian Filter argued, because Smith had a loaded handgun at his side that he could have used to end the woman’s life more quickly.

After a three-day preliminary hearing in October, 5th District Judge James Shumate — who has since retired — ruled that prosecutors had shown probable cause that Smith murdered Christensen. He also found that several aggravating factors justified the aggravated murder charge: that Christensen was killed during a criminal episode in which two or more people were killed, that the homicide was committed incident to attempted kidnapping, that Christensen was killed to prevent her from testifying and that the homicide was committed in an "especially heinous, atrocious, cruel or exceptionally depraved manner."

Pendleton argued in his motion that this decision should be reversed because there was no evidence presented by prosecutors that supported the aggravating factors.

Shooting » Pendleton wrote in the motion that Smith went to Ashton’s St. George apartment Dec. 11, 2010, after Ashton had texted him, asking for a gun and saying he needed to "defend himself."

Smith came to the apartment with two guns, but Pendleton wrote that it quickly became apparent to his client that Ashton was not in any grave danger. Three people — Christensen, Brandie Sue Dawn Jerden and James Fiske — were at the apartment moving Jerden and Fiske’s things out, but there was no "real tension" between the parties, according to the defense motion.

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At some point, Ashton began using Smith’s knife to cut tie-down straps into shorter lengths, according to Pendleton. Later, Smith told police that he eventually came to the conclusion that Ashton "was thinking about tying them up and taking them out in the desert somewhere and then ... yeah."

Pendleton wrote that Smith told police that after Christensen and Fiske had left for a short time, Ashton repeatedly urged him to go up behind Jerden and hit her in the back of the head with the handle of a socket wrench — but Smith refused.

Prosecutors noted that Smith later told a detective he did not refuse because he was opposed to the kidnappings or murder but because he didn’t think the socket wrench was heavy enough.

"It was not that he refused to knock out Jerden because he did not agree with the criminal objective," Filter wrote. "He refused to carry out this plan because he did not think that the plan would succeed. Smith rejected the means, not the objective."

Sometime later, after Christensen and Fiske were back in the apartment, Jerden confronted Ashton — who was seated in an electric wheelchair because of an accident that injured his leg — about a missing mountain bike. Jerden struck Ashton in the face with a plastic clamshell toolbox, according to the defense motion, and, at that point, Smith pulled out a gun he was carrying. Ashton pulled out a gun as well.

"Ashton simultaneously produced the firearm [Smith] had given him and shot Brandie Jerden in the face," Pendleton wrote. "She was apparently killed instantly."

Ashton then shot at Fiske, a bullet hitting him in the right shoulder. Fiske testified during the preliminary hearing that before he left the apartment, he heard Ashton order Smith to "go get the other one," in reference to Christensen.

"Smith had just witnessed Ashton shoot two individuals," Pendleton wrote in the motion. "Ashton was no longer in the wheelchair talking to Smith. He was on his feet halfway back to the bedroom holding the firearm he had just used on Jerden and Fiske, shouting directives at Smith."

Smith later told police that Christensen had locked herself in the bathroom after the shooting. He kicked in the door, he told a detective, while Ashton yelled at him to "get her" and "do it."

Smith told police that he "just wanted to knock her out, because — that didn’t work, and then she was in, yeah, a lot of pain. And then I was like, ‘Oh crap.’ And I think somewhere along the line it was like — gone too far. It was like, might as well just — yeah."

Smith admitted to police that after he beat Christensen with the socket wrench handle, he tried to choke her, and ultimately cut her throat with his pocketknife, according to attorneys.

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