SALT LAKE CITY — Jason Alan Black held his head low as he apologized to the parents and sister of Natalia Casagrande, the woman he shot in the head two years ago.
"Words can never begin to express how sorry I am," he said Tuesday in 3rd District Court.
But his apology to Casagrande's husband, Steven Arceo, was met with a soft expletive. As Salt Lake County sheriff's deputies attempted to remove Arceo from the courtroom in response, his anger became more vocal and he continued to swear at Black while being escorted out by four deputies.
"Were you sorry when you beat her?!" Arceo, who was sitting in the front row of the courtroom and wearing a T-shirt with his wife's picture on it, yelled while being led out the doors.
On Tuesday, Black, 27, who at one time faced a possible death sentence for killing the Magna mother of two and attempting to suffocate her 5-year-old daughter with a throw pillow, was sentenced to the Utah State Prison Tuesday with the possibility of parole.
Black was sentenced to a mandatory 25 years to life for the death of 24-year-old Casagrande. Third District Judge Adam Mow also ordered that his sentences for his convictions on charges of attempted murder, aggravated robbery and obstruction of justice run consecutively with his murder sentence, meaning Black will serve at least 36 years in prison before being considered for parole.
Black was also convicted of aggravated burglary and sentenced to five years to life for that charge. That sentence was ordered to run concurrently to the others.
Mow said the sentence was a balance of justice and mercy.
"You've ruined many lives through the actions you've taken," he said. "Everyone else will pay for these crimes more than you ever will."
Yet, Mow was forced to recognize that prior to his murder conviction, the only crime Black had ever been convicted of was a DUI. Since the shooting, the former substitute teacher and football coach has been remorseful. And his behavior while at the Salt Lake County Jail has been so good that he was downgraded minimum security despite his charge of aggravated murder, according to his attorney.
"I hope you are sincere in your remorse," Mow told Black before sentencing.
On May 31, 2016, Black went to Arceo and Casagrande's home, 7715 W. Jefferson Road (3685 South), to purchase marijuana as he had many times before. He was supposed to have come the day before but did not. When he went on May 31, Arceo was not at home.
At some point during the transaction, Black shot Casagrande in the head, assaulted her by allegedly beating her and cutting her face, and then put a throw pillow over the face of her 5-year-old daughter. Arceo found his daughter with marks to her face and neck lying on the living room floor crying.
The child recognized Black and an intense manhunt by authorities was launched. The Violent Fugitive Apprehension Strike Team of the U.S. Marshals Service tracked Black to his parents' South Jordan home on June 2, 2016. As officers went into the basement, they found Black holding a gun and shot him five times.
A woman who drove Black to the Magna home that day, Estephania Sanchez-Mendoza, 27, of West Jordan, was also charged with obstructing justice, a second-degree felony. She pleaded guilty Oct. 13 to a reduced charge of wrongful appropriation, a class A misdemeanor, and in December was released with credit for the time she had already served in jail.
On Tuesday, it was standing room only in the small courtroom as friends and family members of Casagrande attended Black's sentencing. Tears flowed often as the family told the judge how everyone is still greatly affected by her death.
"There are no words to describe so much pain," Stephanie Sanchez, Casagrande's sister, interpreted in a letter written by her mother, Claudia Molina. "We will never be released from the suffering."
Sanchez told the court in her own words that her young niece can't be around fireworks or loud noises because it "reminds her that her mother got shot in the head. She is traumatized for life over this."
Added Salt Lake County Deputy District Attorney Matthew Hansen, "She'll always be a witness to her mother being cut, strangled and executed."
Elizabeth Arceo, Casagrande's sister-in-law, cried as she recounted the special bond she had with Natalia, both being young mothers who watched each other's children. She said Casagrande was an exceptional mother and noted that on the day of her murder, Casagrande had planned on having a water balloon fight with her daughter. A bucket of balloons filled with water was found in the sink a few days after the murder.
"She had a carefree soul that loved and enjoyed life," she said. "It is such a shame that an overly involved mom is no longer here.
"Our families are empty. Life is not and will never be the same without her," Arceo continued, calling Casagrande "sunshine in a dark, unfair world" where "undeserving people get to live."
"We were robbed of such a beautiful person."
On the other side, the defense disputed claims the killing was premeditated. Defense attorney Michael Peterson called the confrontation that night "a full-blown argument at a personal level."
Prosecutors claimed Black went to the house that day knowing that he didn't have enough money to pay for the drugs and planned from the outset to rob Casagrande. But Hansen also alluded to the court that Black was called a name, which set him off.
Peterson also claimed it was never Black's intention to kill the young girl. He claimed Black was only trying to temporarily knock her out. While not excusing what his client did, Peterson said Black has wanted to do the right thing since the day after the shooting.
"He is as remorseful as any client I have represented in 30 years," he said.
Peterson spent a full 30 minutes trying to convince Mow of the mitigating circumstances in the case. He said now that Black has been free of drugs for two years, he has no resemblance of the person he was the day of the murders.
Brent Black, Jason Black's adoptive father, also addressed the court. He apologized several times to the Casagrande family, saying he never imagined he would have to stand before a court to ask a judge for mercy because his son killed someone.
"This has been horrific, devastating and mind-blowing to our family," he said. "The Jason we know and love would never be involved in something like this.
"I am in no way excusing his actions," he continued. "Those were his choices and decisions."
The father pleaded with the court not to let one action define who his son is. He said he has seen remorse and sorrow in Jason Black and that he has taken responsibility for his actions.
"I know Jason is a good person who has made some very bad choices," he said. "God has kept him alive for a reason. Please give him the opportunity to get out and make up for what he did."
Norma Black, Jason's mother, told the court a day doesn't go by that she doesn't pray for the Casagrande family, calling everything that's happened to both families "so painful."
"It is so hard for me to believe what has happened," she said through a constant stream of tears.
Black said she "lost her son" awhile ago to drugs. But since his arrest, she has had a lot of correspondence with him and has seen the boy she knew before return.3 comments on this story
Before sentencing, Mow told Jason Black he could not blame his actions on being abused in his early years by his birth father. He said he was also troubled that Black never sought help even though he knew he had a drug problem.
"I hope you will live a better life," he said. "Unfortunately it took a heinous act to change."
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated several of Jason Black's sentences would run concurrently instead of consecutively, meaning he would serve at least 36 years before becoming eligible for parole, rather than 30 years.