SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has denied the appeal of a man convicted of aggravated murder for a 2007 shooting that he carried out in retaliation for testimony given in court.
Anthony James Prater, 32, is serving a life prison sentence without the opportunity for parole for firing eight shots at 35-year-old Vincent Samora, striking him once in the back, on Nov. 27, 2007. Samora was in a vehicle in the driveway of his mother's home in Salt Lake City at the time. A woman next to him in the vehicle was not injured.
Prater's conviction will stand despite his appeal arguing that statements of three witnesses during his trial — all of whom said Prater openly confessed the murder to them shortly after it occurred — were "inherently improbable." The state Supreme Court's ruling Wednesday stated that Prater's arguments about those witnesses didn't "come within shouting distance" of proving they were blatantly unreliable.
Prosecutors said the motive for the murder was Samora's previous testimony in court against Christopher M. Archuleta, Prater's former cellmate. Archuleta was convicted of shooting Samora in the stomach in 2005.
"Prater had been searching for Samora for months," the Utah Supreme Court explained in its ruling.
Aside from forensic evidence, prosecutors pointed to three witnesses who testified that Prater admitted to them that he shot and killed Samora. One of those witnesses included Ryan Hall Sheppard, now 36, who was in the same vehicle as Prater at the time of the shooting.
Sheppard later pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the case and was sentenced in 2013 to five years of probation and was given credit for nearly four years' time spent behind bars. His probation was revoked in 2014 and his originally suspended sentence of four to 20 years in prison was reinstated.
The high court said Sheppard and two women testified at Prater's trial that "upon hearing a local news channel report Samora's death, Prater celebrated by laughing (and) jumping up and down."
Prater's appeal contended that those witnesses were obviously tainted because they admitted to initially lying to police during the investigation, and later "received favorable reduction in their charges or sentencing" for cooperating in the case against him.
"Prater contends that because the trio of witnesses changed their testimony after receiving deals from the state, the testimony they each offered at trial was inherently dubious to the point that no reasonably jury could have relied on it to convict him," the state Supreme Court explained.
The court's ruling found Prater's appeal insufficient and unpersuasive.
"Any leniency the witnesses received in exchange for testimony was solidly before the jury when it made its credibility determinations," the ruling stated. "Prater's counsel had every opportunity to attack the witnesses' credibility because of the plea deals and to argue accordingly in front of the jury."
In addition to the aggravated murder charge, Prater was also convicted of second-degree felony obstruction of justice and five counts of discharging a firearm from a vehicle, a third-degree felony. He was sentenced to five concurrent sentences of three to five years in prison for the firearm counts, to run consecutively with his life sentence. His sentence for obstruction runs concurrently with his life sentence.