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SALT LAKE CITY -- A 3rd District Court judge has vacated the conviction of a former teacher's aide who was found guilty of seven different counts of sex-related charges involving students.
Judge Robert Adkins issued the surprise ruling Monday, just four days before Andrea Billingsley was to be sentenced for three counts of sodomy and one count of rape, both first-degree felonies, and three counts of forcible sex abuse, a second-degree felony.
Judge Adkins stated there were errors in the trial. He felt so strongly about them that he reversed the conviction.
Defense attorney Dean Zabriskie argued that the jury was "poisoned" by the admission of a photo that showed Billingsley "partially nude" that was put on her phone months after the alleged incidents. The victims later claimed they had a similar, or the same photo on their phones.
Zabriskie said, "We were pleased. She's faced with five-to-life sentencing, 32 years old, mother of children. She claims it didn't happen. Of course we were pleased."
Billingsley -- a former teacher's aide at West Jordan Middle School -- had been found guilty of having a sexual relationship with two students at the school-- though she insists the boys fabricated a vicious rumor about her. The young men were 15 and 16 when the events took place.
Now her attorney is praising the judge.
"We want the jury to hear all the evidence, everything that's relevant, everything that the law allows. I think the judge kept that in mind as he lifted the verdict Monday," Zabriskie said.
When Billingsley's trial began, the judge excluded evidence about the alleged victims' sexual past.
There was also an issue as to whether Billingsley enticed the teenagers. According to Zabriskie, the judge said the defense should have had a chance to talk about the boys' past to show she didn't make them do something they otherwise would have been unlikely to do.
Prosecutor Peter Leavitt said the judge's decision to omit the boys' past histories was made before the trial began. The judge now believes he should have allowed that information. Leavitt said the judge also felt he had made a mistake in admitting the photo in the trial.
"He basically set aside the jury's verdict," Leavitt said. "We're at the pre-trial phase now."
The judge also ruled that the way in which certain evidence was presented, and inappropriate comments and body language made by the court staff, may have swayed the jury toward a guilty verdict.
In a rare move, he put the case back into pre-trial mode, as if the trial and conviction had never happened.
"The judge made his decision. Obviously we disagree with the decision, and so right now we're in the process of looking at different ways that we can challenge that decision," Leavitt said.
The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office is "exploring" the different avenues it has to pursue in the case, he said.
Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office, said an appeal of the judge's decision is being considered, "but a final decision has not been made."
Zabriskie said the case will be assigned to a new judge before the next pre-trial hearing on Jan. 11. An official court order of the judge's decision will be issued within the next few days.
Billingsley has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges. Zabriskie said Billingsley continues to state she never had sex with the boys and that they fabricated and publicized the encounters in an effort to brag to their schoolmates.
Story compiled with contributions from Jennifer Stagg, Emiley Morgan and Paul Koepp.