S.L. man sent to prison, but victim's family protests, questions whether gunshot was accidental

Published: Monday, Sept. 26 2011 7:08 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Five of the victim's friends and family members walked out of the courtroom Monday before sentencing was complete, but that didn't change what the judge decided to do.

"I just simply do not find anything so persuasive to go contrary to the recommendation of the state and the facts and circumstances of this case," 3rd District Judge Ann Boyden said before sentencing Jonathan Fithian, 29, to two concurrent prison sentences of 1 to 15 years in prison for the death of Paul Butterfield, 26. Boyden also ordered Fithian to pay restitution for funeral expenses and the cost of therapy.

Fithian pleaded guilty in July to manslaughter and obstruction of justice, both second-degree felonies, in the November 2010 killing.

Witnesses earlier testified that Fithian entered Butterfield's home seeking drugs, counterfeit money or both. When Butterfield insulted Fithian's cousin, Fithian pulled out a gun. Witnesses said it went off after Fithian struck Butterfield with the weapon.

Though witnesses said it was unclear whether Fithian meant to fire the weapon or whether it accidentally went off after he pistol-whipped Butterfield, it was regarded as an accident during sentencing.

Butterfield was struck in the back and later died. The man left behind two young children. 

"A part of my life is gone," Butterfield's mother, Cheryl, said. "It's hard to face and it's something I'll live with for the rest of my life — (Fithian) took a great guy."

Fithian was originally charged with first-degree felony murder. As part of a plea deal, he pleaded guilty to a reduced manslaughter charge and prosecutors agreed to recommend two concurrent prison terms. Butterfield's family expressed anger and frustration over the plea agreement.

"We haven't been involved in any of this," brother Luke Butterfield told the judge. "It's all one big mess."

He said he wanted to believe the shooting was an accident, but said Fithian pointed the gun at other members of the Butterfield family even after shooting Paul Butterfield. Then, Fithian ran from the home.

"It was all handled really bad if it was an accident," Luke Butterfield said.

Sister Tonice Butterfield expressed similar frustrations with the sentence. She wept as she told the judge that she relives the shooting every day of her life.

"It's sad to know that the last memory I have of my brother was seeing him die on the kitchen floor," she said.

Prosecutor Thad May told Boyden the decision to offer the agreement was made by a committee. "It's an agreement we stand behind," he said.

Defense attorney Ralph Dellapiana said the trajectory of the bullet supports the notion that the gun accidentally went off, as did eyewitness testimony. He also noted that his client has a relatively minor criminal history and asked for concurrent sentences and credit for the 306 days he's been in jail.

"These cases are truly heartbreaking," Dellapiana said. "Especially when they are as senseless as this one was. It's not just the victim that suffers, but the whole family. They can never be made whole and we wish the best for them."

Fithian said he was "sincerely sorry" for what he had done and hopes his guilty plea helps the family.

"I know there's nothing I can do to bring Paul back, to make it right with the family," he said. "I feel like a total piece of (expletive deleted) for what I did."

After Fithian spoke, Luke Butterfield interjected and asked to make another statement, asking the prosecutor why he didn't take the case to trial as Luke Butterfield claimed he was promised.

"You'd make a great defense attorney, Thad," Butterfield said before exiting the courtroom.

Four others would follow him out as Boyden handed down the sentence. She said there was no doubt Fithian should go to prison, but that the plea agreement was appropriate given the facts and circumstances of the case.

She then told Paul Butterfield's family and friends that Fithian pleaded guilty and accepted a prison sentence and that's all he can do. She said how they respond now is up to them.

"I truly hope that all of you will honor Paul's memory by moving on as best you can," the judge said. 

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

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