Prosecutors, West Jordan police, a state medical examiner and others believe that Donald C. Jaeger shot his girlfriend to death on Aug. 22.
But a 3rd Circuit judge disagrees and ordered the murder case against him dismissed, making Jaeger, 32, a free man.After taking the case under advisement for more than three weeks, Judge Michael Hutchings issued the unusual opinion Friday. He concluded that there were "major weaknesses" in the case and ordered that the West Jordan man be discharged.
"This case is certainly one of the most difficult cases that the court has been assigned to decide during an eight-year tenure on the bench," the judge wrote. "No reasonable jury given the facts of this case before the court could find the defendant guilty of second-degree murder."
Bud Ellett, chief of the Salt Lake County attorney's office justice division, said he is disappointed with the judge's decision and may meet with other prosecutors to consider filing an appeal.
"I think he (the judge) has missed some very important points, but the judge is the judge is the judge," he said. "Based upon what he thinks the facts are, I think we're going to look at it . . . to justify asking the attorney general to appeal."
Jaeger dialed 911 the evening of Aug. 22 immediately after Mary L. Barndt, 19, was shot just below the neck.
"Oh, . . . I . . . I . . . My girlfriend just shot herself," he told the operator who answered the phone. "I don't know what to do. . . . Oh God, I can't believe she done this."
A recording of the call was played to the courtroom during a preliminary hearing on Jan. 9. Jaeger could be heard sobbing on the tape, continually asking the operator to hurry and send help, pausing to emotionally encourage his girlfriend to breathe.
Hutchings said even though the way Jaeger began the conversation with the operator may sound like "an admission changed in midcourse," the rest of the statements he made during the phone call were more consistent with the theory that Barndt shot herself.
Prosecutors contend that Jaeger shot Barndt during an argument. That evening, he discovered she had been making unauthorized long-distance phone calls, and she had left her daughter unsupervised at home while she went to a bar or a party that evening.
She came home late with alcohol and Valium in her system. Jaeger told her she would have to move out of his home the next day.
But the crux of the case for both sides hinged on the results of gunshot residue tests, Hutchings wrote. The results of a test taken on Barndt's hands showed no signs of residue indicating that she had fired a gun. Jaeger's hands, however, showed particles characteristic of gunshot residue.
Defense attorney Lisa Remal argued that Jaeger works at an automotive business - an environment containing particles that are characteristic of gunshot residue. The judge agreed that particles from his workplace could have affected the results of his gunshot residue test.
Hutchings ruled that gunshot residue from Barndt's hands could have been rubbed off during the hustle of the care that she received after paramedics arrived. The 911 dispatcher also told Jaeger to hold the victim's hand and to turn her over. Her upper clothing was also removed and may have rubbed against her hands, removing residue.
Prosecutors also presented testimony that Barndt's left arm was raised at least to shoulder level when she was shot - a natural reaction to protect herself from Jaeger's alleged gunshot. But the judge said it appeared more likely she raised her arm to cover her eyes rather than literally look down the barrel of the gun as it was pointed at her chest.
Hutchings said there was ample motive for Barndt to commit suicide. That evening she was distraught because Jaeger had told her to leave the house the next day and not return. After Jaeger informed his girlfriend that their relationship was over, Jaeger phoned her mother and said her daughter needed to talk to her.
"This does not appear to be the conduct of a person who would within minutes take Mary's life," said the judge.
Judy Clark, of Layton, testified that her daughter was very upset during the phone call. "The main thing she kept saying to me was Don hates me."
"The combination of these emotions and chemicals (alcohol and Vali-um) could very well have prompted Mary to take her own life," the judge wrote. Also, when Clark was informed that Mary had died, her first comment was to ask if her daughter had taken her own life.
Although an assistant medical examiner testified he did not believe Barndt could have killed herself, Hutchings said his testimony was based on the "discredited" gunshot residue tests and said the examiner did not consider any factors of a possible suicide.