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Appeals court reverses murder conviction in 1996 murder

Published: Thursday, Aug. 25 2011 6:27 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Court of Appeals ordered Thursday that a man convicted of murder in the 1996 slaying of his fiancée should be given a new trial.

A jury found Billy Justin Charles, 35, guilty in 2009 — almost 13 years after Jamie Ellen Weiss, 18, was found dead in the bathtub of the couple's mobile home.

The couple was to have been married the next day.

Police were called out to the home on a report of a drowning, but an autopsy later showed Weiss died as a result of blunt-force trauma and asphyxiation.

Weiss' death was deemed a homicide in 1996 but no arrests were made until the case was reopened in 2007 and Charles was charged with murder, a first-degree felony.

But the Utah Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and remanded the case for a new trial.

"We see no due process violation here based on either the state’s delay in charging defendant or its methods of investigation," the court ruling states. "However, considering the circumstantial nature of the evidence upon which defendant was convicted and the cumulative effect of defense counsel’s errors, we think there is a reasonable probability that, absent the errors, the jury would have had a reasonable doubt about his guilt."

The ruling, penned by Judge Gregory Orme, pointed to evidence of the ineffective assistance of counsel claim because attorneys apparently failed to present witnesses and evidence that could have corroborated Charles' story — that Weiss had been alive when he left for work the day she was killed and had helped him start his truck, which at times required two people to start.

"Although each piece of evidence described above is not, by itself, overwhelmingly suggestive of defendant’s innocence, taken together this evidence undermines our confidence in the jury’s verdict," Orme wrote.

He went on to say that the delay in filing the case also pointed to weak evidence. "Looking at the big picture, the 11-year delay in bringing charges against defendant indicates that the state was trying to find more evidence against him which, in turn, indicates that it believed the case was not particularly strong."

Assistant attorney general Ryan Tenney disagreed with the court, saying it simply took longer to get the "very solid" evidence prosecutors presented at trial, including a jailhouse confession from a distant relative.

"The witnesses that they're talking about in the opinion had decidedly ambiguous testimony," Tenney said. "When you look at that ambiguity and put in the context of all the evidence against the defendant … it wouldn’t have mattered.

The Utah Attorney General's Office will consider an appeal to the Utah Supreme Court.

"We're very disappointed in the ruling," Tenney said. "We think that the court of appeals got it wrong. We think the conviction was a good one and should have stood."

Troy Booher, who handled the appeals for Charles, said his client was "very happy" with the court's ruling and looked forward to presenting his case to a new jury.

"I think (the court of appeals) reached the right result in the case," Booher said. "The evidence is thin enough that you really need to have a trial where all of the evidence is presented and trial counsel does exactly the right job." 

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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