PROVO — Meagan Grunwald, 17, was ordered Thursday to stand trial for aggravated murder and 11 other charges in the death of Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Cory Wride.
Fourth District Judge Darold McDade's decision after a day and a half of testimony came as no surprise based on the low burden of proof prosecutors are required to meet in a preliminary hearing.
But the bigger question now becomes whether the state will seek to prosecute the teenage girl to the fullest extent of the law, which could result in her being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. (Although aggravated murder can be punished by death, the U.S. Supreme court ruled that the death penalty is not applicable if the crimes were committed while still a juvenile.)
Or will the defense be able to convince a jury that Grunwald's boyfriend and alleged accomplice, Jose Angel Garcia-Juaregui, 27, forced her at gunpoint to flee from police and he threatened to kill her if she didn't comply?
Defense attorney Dean Zabriskie said Thursday that if the case goes to trial, he will argue that Garcia-Juaregui told Grunwald something similar to, "Drive or I'll blow your head off."
"We're going to continue to represent her as being a victim as well as those other tragic victims in this case. She was forced to do it. There will be testimony offered if this matter goes to trial that that gun was turned on her on more than one occasion. That her choices were reduced to comply or give up her own life and then things just spun out of control," he said.
The Draper teen still cannot hear out of her right ear because her boyfriend's gun was fired so many times next to her, Zabriskie said. He also noted that Grunwald was 16 when she met Garcia-Juaregui and their relationship itself would be considered a crime under Utah law.
If the case goes to trial, Zabriskie said Grunwald will take the witness stand.
"No one has heard her yet. There was no exchange between the police and (her) when they arrested her. No one knows her story — haven't even heard her voice. I'm sure you'll all be somewhat impressed when you hear it," he said.
While prosecutors concede they do not believe Grunwald fired any of the shots that killed Wride, critically injured Utah County sheriff's deputy Greg Sherwood, or were directed at any of the other officers that pursued the couple during their alleged 50-mile crime spree, she does fall into the accomplice liability statute.
By willingly going along with what her boyfriend did, Grunwald aided and abetted, said deputy Utah County attorney Sam Pead, meaning whatever Garcia-Juaregui would have been charged with, she can also be charged with.
Garcia-Juaregui was shot in the head by police at the end of the chase on Jan. 30 and died the next day. Grunwald, who police say was the getaway driver for most of the events, is charged with aggravated murder, two counts of felony discharge of a firearm with serious bodily injury, two counts of attempted aggravated murder, and aggravated robbery, all first-degree felonies.
She is also charged with criminal mischief, a second-degree felony; felony discharge of a firearm, possession or use of a controlled substance, and failure to respond to an officer's signal to stop, all third-degree felonies; criminal mischief, a class A misdemeanor; and violation of operator duties for accident involving property damage, a class B misdemeanor.
The preliminary hearing was highlighted by six video recordings taken from the dashboard cameras of various deputies and troopers involved in the incident, including the patrol vehicles of Wride and Sherwood.
The defense, however, argued that what the cameras couldn't see was what was happening inside the cab of the truck Grunwald was driving.
Despite the abundance of video evidence, Pead admits it's not a slam dunk case.
"This is a hard case. We don't have mind-reading machines. Ultimately the issue is going to be motive. Was it a motivation based on compulsion? Was it a motivation based on love, loyalty, a desire to protect? That's what it's going to come down to," he said. "So it's a question of the inferences that come from the hard evidence versus what is likely her taking the stand."
But Pead believes there's enough evidence in the videos — particularly during the times Grunwald and Garcia-Juaregui were recorded running outside their vehicle in Nephi before a woman was carjacked and after they crashed on I-15 at the end of the chase — to show Grunwald had opportunities to escape from her boyfriend, but didn't.
"If a picture paints a thousand words, then a video paints a million," he said. "Are those actions reasonable for the claims that are being suggested? Our argument would obviously be, no, they're not."
Now that the case has been bound over for an arraignment on May 12, both prosecutors and defense attorneys said they're open to potential plea deal discussions. Pead said he recognized that one of the difficulties of the case is the girl's age and the potential serious sentence she faces if convicted.
"This is a difficult case. And when I say difficult I don't just mean evidentiary-wise. I mean in terms of the emotions, the families," he said.
Grunwald's attorneys tried to keep their client in good spirits. She could be seen laughing and smiling with them as they waited for a decision about whether she would be ordered to stand trial. But Zabriske said his client is "traumatized" over potentially standing trial now for aggravated murder.
Her family, some in tears, left the courtroom Thursday without saying anything to reporters.
Wride's family, including his parents, widow, children and siblings, also declined comment Thursday. But family spokesman Johnny Revill said the family felt "relief" that the case is headed to trial.
"We're confident as a family that justice will be served," he said.
Revill said families on "all sides" were having a hard time with everything that has happened. He thanked the community for their continued support, including the fundraisers and donations that have been made to Wride's newly established foundation.
When asked what the family thought about a 17-year-old potentially being sent to prison without the possibility of parole, Revill said they'd leave judgment and the sentence to the court system.
But he added: "I think the prosecutor said it best when he said a lot of times actions speak louder than words. We all make decisions and there's consequences to those decisions."
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