PROVO — Amanda Merrill Pilling fidgeted with a tissue in the courtroom. She was surrounded by loved ones on either side, a man with his arm around her and a woman who put her hand on Pilling's knee.
Her young son, Ryker, just 5 months old, was killed in May when Joshua David Petersen, the baby's father, shot him with a .22-caliber rifle.
She brought a hand up to her face, one finger in the inner corner of each eye, as she listened to deputy Utah County attorney Craig Johnson describe her son's death.
Minutes later, one row ahead, members of the Petersen family shook with emotion as Petersen, 22, pleaded guilty to aggravated murder. Petersen's mother buried her face in the back of the man sitting next to her.
The surprise plea Tuesday came just one day after a judge deemed Petersen competent to stand trial.
Before 4th District Judge Darold McDade entered the court, Petersen sat, sniffling, on a seat in the farthest corner of the room.
Once the judge arrived, defense attorney Dusty Kawai said his client intended to plead guilty. Despite his client's depression, Kawai said, Petersen understands the seriousness of the crime and the potential sentences.
Both sides agreed to recommend life without the possibility of parole. McDade told Petersen before he entered his plea that he will consider the attorneys' recommendations, but as judge, he will make the decision about Petersen's fate. The judge could still consider life with parole or could potentially even order a death penalty sentencing hearing.
"We've been talking candidly and frankly since, I'd say, early July," Kawai told the judge.
The attorney said he made sure the judge was aware that Petersen was willingly pleading guilty. Although Kawai requested the competency reports, "(Josh) was never found not competent," he said, adding that the reports were ordered to make it clear that Petersen was in a position to make decisions regarding the rest of his life.
After Petersen was taken off suicide watch in the jail in early July, Kawai said he's seen a difference in his client. Petersen, standing next to his attorney, interjected in a soft voice that he also switched medications around that time. Regardless of the reason, he said, his client understands the consequences of entering a guilty plea.
A presentence report will be conducted by Adult Probation and Parole. A sentencing date was set for Oct. 21. Johnson checked with Pilling to see if the sentencing date would work for her. Despite the whispering of a woman next to her who said the date was just two days before the baby's birthday, Pilling consented.
“Nothing changed between yesterday and today, quite honestly,” Kawai said.
After Monday's competency hearing, Kawai visited with Petersen at the jail and explained his only option, aside from the life sentence, would be to seek a trial. He said he did not want to put his family or the baby’s mother through that ordeal.
Attorneys pushed for the Tuesday hearing because they wanted to have Petersen enter his plea while he was still in a good mental state.
Johnson later told reporters he believes Petersen will serve life in prison.
Johnson said what the family wanted most wanted was closure. Because a death sentence would mean years and years of appeals, the family prefers a sentence of life without parole.
When asked about his medication, Petersen seemed confused. He rattled of names of medication, but was unable to tell the judge what the medications were for. One was for sleep, he said. He struggled to remember the other, and ultimately said it was for post-traumatic stress disorder.
- LDS missionaries developing strategies to...
- As winter takes hold, needs increase for...
- Martin MacNeill cuts self with razor in...
- Snow wreaks havoc across state, curbs travel...
- Families face uncertainty, unite in prayer as...
- Police officer suicide needs to be addressed,...
- Orem man accused of killing wife threatened...
- System failure to blame for delayed Saturday...
- Utah judge could be first to rule on... 110
- Federal website fixes allowing more... 44
- LDS missionaries developing strategies... 39
- Tea Party Express endorses Sen. Mike... 27
- Seeing is believing: Doctor, family say... 26
- Utahns react to death of Nelson Mandela 26
- As winter takes hold, needs increase... 25
- Gov. Gary Herbert unveils $13.3 billion... 18