VERNAL — A four-day jury trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday for a Guatemalan national accused of killing his cousin in Uintah County last year.
Jose Eduardo Leiva-Perez, 35, is charged with murder, a first-degree felony, in 8th District Court in connection with the beating death of David Urrutia.
The man, who speaks no English, initially told Uintah County sheriff's detectives that Urrutia, 38, had been attacked by three men wielding baseball bats. Leiva-Perez told investigators his cousin was already severely injured when he found him inside the Fort Duchesne mobile home they shared in January 2013.
During a jailhouse interview that Leiva-Perez later sought to suppress, however, he admitted that he killed his cousin, but said he was acting in self-defense.
"He was going to kill me," Leiva-Perez wrote in a statement given after the interview. "He threatened to shoot me with a rifle and with kicking me out (of the trailer home)."
Defense attorney Greg Lamb had argued that differences between the way police are perceived in Guatemala and the United States, coupled with his client's inability to understand English, made Leiva-Perez particularly vulnerable to police interrogation tactics.
In a 32-page ruling handed down in March, Judge Clark McClellan held that police properly advised Leiva-Perez of his Miranda rights and that his decision to waive those rights was "knowing and voluntary," as required by law.
The judge also rejected defense claims that officers subjected Leiva-Perez to duress during questioning. McClellan noted that while everyone agreed the jail cell where investigators questioned Leiva-Perez was cold, the defendant was provided with additional blankets for warmth.
As for the interrogation, which lasted slightly more than an hour and a half, McClellan pointed out that much of that time was spent translating questions and answers.
"Because of interpretation issues, and the need for the interpreting officer to confer with the other officer, the actual amount of time spent interrogating the defendant was less than the 95 minutes (cited in court papers)," the judge wrote.
Leiva-Perez has been deported from the United States at least once before and was in the country illegally when Urrutia was killed, according to court records. He remains in the Uintah County Jail, where he is being held without bail.
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