PROVO — Damien Candland was "cold-blooded" and unfazed by the brutal slaying of his aunt, prosecutors said before the man was sentenced to life in prison Thursday.
"He was as unaffected by his recent actions of assaulting, murdering and dumping his aunt as he would be dumping the trash," deputy Utah County attorney Julia Thomas said. "I think, in his mind, that's what he'd done."
The 23-year-old Provo man said nothing before he was sentenced to life in prison without parole by 4th District Judge James Taylor for one count of aggravated murder, a first-degree felony.
Candland was charged in the death of his aunt Amy Candland, 41, whose body was found by hikers in Hobble Creek Canyon on Feb. 21, 2010. Police said she had been beaten, raped and strangled.
Damien Candland was arrested the next day after police matched duct tape on the body and footprints at the scene with a roll of tape and shoes found at the house where he had lived with his aunt.
After Damien Candland pleaded guilty to the aggravated murder charge, prosecutors dropped additional charges of rape, a first-degree felony, and obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony. As part of the agreement, the death penalty was removed as a possible punishment, and the life sentence was agreed upon.
But on Jan. 21, Damien Candland penned a letter to 4th District Judge James Taylor saying he didn't know what he was doing when he accepted the plea deal.
"I only had a week to make a decision for the rest of my life, under all the anxiety, stress and whatnot. I was confused about what I was doing," he wrote.
Damien Candland went on to say that he felt he "can have a chance of beating this case."
He wrote a second letter on Jan. 26 saying that he wanted to "continue fighting" and expressing frustration with his attorneys.
New attorneys were appointed in the case, but Taylor denied Damien Candland's motion to withdraw his guilty plea on the grounds that the judge had clearly reviewed with the Provo man what was happening at the hearing in which the plea was entered.
Defense attorney Ed Brass said little to the judge at the sentencing Thursday, noting that the sentence was basically a "foregone conclusion" as it was a part of the man's plea agreement.
Thomas detailed the DNA evidence in the case — from the blood on Damien Candland's shirt to his DNA under his aunt's fingernails — and severity of the injuries sustained by Amy Candland.
"There should be full confidence in the trustworthiness of this conviction," Thomas said.
The deputy Utah County attorney characterized Damien Candland as "cold-blooded" and said phone records taken from around the time Amy Candland was killed showed he was unfazed by his actions.
She said the death penalty "was the only resolution, absent (life in prison without parole), we would have considered."
But Damien Candland's mother, Chris McCain, continued to adamantly maintain her son's innocence before the judge.
"I believe he should have the right to go to trial," McCain said. "The Damien we know that no one else knows is smart and loving, good to animals and children, and he loved Amy."
Multiple times she expressed her love to her son and resolved to stand by him.
"I will be here until my dying breath," McCain said. "I will never turn my back on you."
The man's father and brother to the victim, Keith Candland, agreed with the sentence and spoke of all the things he will miss about his sister and the way her death changed his life.
"My sister did not deserve the brutality that was inflicted on her back in February 2010," he said. "She was a kind, loving person, and she was willing to give people a second chance, and she gave you many, Damien."4 comments on this story
He said his son deserved the sentence that was agreed upon and advised him to make something of his time in prison.
"I challenge you to do right by yourself in this new world you enter," Keith Candland said. "Goodbye, and I love you, my son."
After the hearing, he thanked all of those who offered help and support in the case, including those in the Utah County Sheriff's Office and the hikers that found his sister's body. He called the whole ordeal "really hard."
"There are no winners in this case," he said. "Only justice for Amy Jo."