George Wesley Hamilton, convicted in August 1987 of murdering a Southern Utah State College student two years earlier, will get a new trial, a 4th District judge has ruled.
Judge George E. Ballif, in a nine-page ruling released Friday, said Hamilton's rights were violated because of jury misconduct during deliberations Aug. 20, the last day of his trial. Ballif ruled that a newspaper article about the case, which a juror brought into deliberations, tainted the verdict."The court concludes that an erosion of confidence in the verdict exists in that a more favorable outcome is possible and that the motion for a new trial should be granted since the misconduct here is at the very heart of our criminal justice system which requires a fair and impartial jury," Ballif said in the ruling.
Hamilton was found guilty of second-degree murder, a first-degree felony, in the mutilation slaying Aug. 1, 1985, of 19-year-old Sharon Sant of Fillmore. He was sentenced to five years to life in the state prison.
"I feel especially sad for the Sant family, who will have to live through this thing all over again," said Millard County Attorney Warren Peterson, who prosecuted the case. He said county officials hope a new trial will cost less than the estimated $250,000 spent on the first trial.
"The judge's ruling was not a surprise. I think he made the responsible decision," Peterson said. "A juror engaged in that type of conduct was beyond the control of the prosecution or the judge. It's unfortunate that the actions of one individual can have such a negative impact on the system."
Ballif ordered Hamilton released from prison and remanded to custody of the Millard County sheriff.
The newspaper article, published in the Aug. 18, 1987, edition of the Provo Daily Herald, dealt with statements by Robert Bott, a second suspect in Sant's murder.
"The court concluded that the newspaper article being extraneous material not received in evidence by the court and not properly before the jury," Ballif said, "was in fact considered by and deemed significant to the one juror who produced the article and who indicated to the other jurors that they should know its contents and it would `clear up your mind. . . . ' "
Bott, quoted in the story as saying Hamilton killed Sant, originally was to be tried with Hamilton. Murder charges against him, however, were dismissed for lack of evidence.
After believing he had been granted immunity from prosecution, Bott retracted earlier denials of involvement in the slaying, claiming he sexually abused Sant and helped mutilate her body after Hamilton killed her. Bott was dropped as a witness because prosecutors decided his testimony was unreliable.
Peterson decried newspaper stories on Bott's statements, which also appeared during the trial in the Salt Lake Tribune.
Fred Metos, co-defense counsel for Hamilton, said the granting of a new trial serves as a reminder of the importance of responsible jury duty.
"It's critical for jurors to take their duties seriously, and one of those duties is to do what a judge tells them to do," he said.
During the trial, Ballif repeatedly admonished jurors not to read newspaper stories or watch television reports about the proceedings.
"The bottom line is his (Hamilton's) rights were violated. We just can't let that happen," Metos said.
Metos, who was joined by co-counsel Ron Yengich in representing Hamilton during hearings on a new trial, said he doesn't know whether Hamilton will ask him and Yengich to stay on as attorneys during the new trial.
"We really haven't settled that issue yet," he said. "Frankly, I haven't even talked to the family yet."
Peterson said the new trial likely will be held in Utah County before a 4th District judge.