Murder suspect’s attorneys seek reduced charge
Labeling the prosecution’s case “circumstantial at best,” attorneys for Jason Garner have attacked the credibility of witnesses who testified to a grand jury about alleged confessions in the 1998 killing of 18-year-old Coty Vernon of Gypsum.
In documents filed Feb. 13, attorneys Marna Lake and Andrew Nolan asked a judge to dismiss Garner’s first-degree murder indictment, in favor of lesser charges. Evidence that their client acted “after deliberation” – a key element for a first-degree murder charge – doesn’t exist in the evidence presented to the grand jury that indicted Garner, Lake and Nolan argue.
The attorneys last week asked Judge Amanda Bailey to determine if the first-degree murder charge should stand. Bailey likely won’t rule on the issue until next month.
The most recent documents filed offer a limited first look at the grand jury testimony against Garner. An indictment was returned in August 2003, 10 months after the grand jury was impaneled.
“There are … a couple of witnesses who claim that Mr. Garner confessed to killing Ms. Vernon,” the documents state. “Mr. Garner asserts that none of these claims are credible, corroborated or otherwise supported by evidence.”
Only one grand jury witness, Robby Orr, testified to have directly heard Garner confess to the murder, attorneys argue. The alleged confession was made at Orr’s house. He testified to the grand jury on July 2, 2003.
“At the time of his grand jury testimony, Mr. Orr was incarcerated in a Mesa County detention facility,” the documents state. “He had no less than five separate felony cases pending against him and had been previously convicted of three felony offenses. When asked, Mr. Orr admitted that he had considered the possibility that his testimony would help him on his pending cases.”
Moreover, three other individuals supposedly present during Garner’s alleged confession to Orr weren’t called to testify to the grand jury, documents allege.
Another witness, Cynthia Inskeep, testified March 26, 2003, about a conversation she had had with another man. Inskeep, in earlier statements to investigators, said that she “may have heard” that Mr. Garner used a tire iron or strangled Vernon in February 1998.
But in her March 26 testimony to the grand jury, Inskeep allegedly said she was “100 percent positive” that she heard the man say, “My friend Jason killed his girlfriend.”
The man in question has denied making the statement, according to documents.
A coroner’s report in December 2002 concluded that Vernon had been stabbed. Vernon was reported missing Feb. 18, 1998, four days after leaving her home in Gypsum with Garner. The pair had gone to party on a county road northeast of De Beque two days earlier.
Vernon’s remains were found by an elk hunter in December 2002 roughly three miles from where Vernon’s car was found.
In addition to questioning testimony, attorneys Lake and Nolan question the physical evidence against Garner.
“There was no blood on his person or clothing … none of the footprints near Ms. Vernon’s car have been conclusively linked to Mr. Garner. In fact, most of the numerous footprints found at the scene appear to be those made by law enforcement officers.”
Neither was a knife or any other sharp instrument found anywhere Garner was purported to have been.
Meanwhile, a sheriff’s deputy’s testimony Nov. 6, 2003, cast doubt on the prospect of Garner taking Vernon’s car.
“Based on the position of the driver’s seat in Ms. Vernon’s vehicle, it would have been difficult for Mr. Garner to have been the last one driving it,” documents state.
Lake and Nolan also state that Garner reported Vernon missing on Feb. 18, 1998, “knowing that he would be arrested due to an outstanding misdemeanor warrant.”
Garner allegedly said he had lost Vernon when questioned by investigators and has provided conflicting accounts about the February 1998 party. Both Garner and Vernon had allegedly used methamphetamine for days.
“The confusion demonstrated in the statements to others is more likely attributable to this impairment than it is evidence that he either caused Ms. Vernon’s death or that he did so intentionally or after deliberation,” the documents state.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Pete Hautzinger declined to comment on Lake and Nolan’s assertions, saying he plans to file his own detailed rebuttal.
The response is due by March 10.
This story is reprinted courtesy of the Grand Junction Free Press. Reach reporter Paul Shockley at firstname.lastname@example.org.