SALT LAKE CITY — A man who admitted to murdering his aunt, then asked to withdraw his guilty plea, has taken the rejection of his request to the Utah Supreme Court.
Damien Candland, 25, pleaded guilty to aggravated murder, a first-degree felony, in the death of Amy Candland, 41. Her body was found in Hobble Creek Canyon east of Springville on Feb. 21, 2010. Police said she had been beaten, raped and strangled.
Prosecutors were threatening to seek the death penalty, but the punishment was taken off the table in exchange for the man's guilty plea. They also agreed to drop additional charges of rape, a first-degree felony, and obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony.
Candland was eventually sentenced to life in prison without parole after penning a letter to 4th District Judge James Taylor saying that he didn't know what he was doing when he accepted the plea deal.
"I only had a week to make a decision for the rest of my life, under all the anxiety, stress and whatnot. I was confused about what I was doing," Candland wrote.
He went on to say that he felt he "can have a chance of beating this case." He wrote a second letter days later saying that he wanted to "continue fighting" and expressing frustration with his attorneys.
"He didn't understand the relation of how those aggravating elements connected to the underlying murder charge."
New attorneys were appointed in the case, but Taylor still denied Candland's motion to withdraw his guilty plea, determining that Candland was not confused or misled when he entered his plea.
This week, Candland's appeals attorney, Aaron Dodd, argued that Candland did not enter his plea "knowingly and voluntarily" because he was generally confused about what was happening. Justice Christine Durham asked what, specifically, Candland found confusing.
"It was specifically with whether he was admitting to the elements of the aggravated murder charge," Dodd said, stating that Candland now refuted that he killed his aunt to keep her from testifying in another case or to retaliate against her.
"So his theory was that he committed the crime for some unspecified reason?" Durham said.
"Correct, that would be his theory, that he didn't understand the relation of how those aggravating elements connected to the underlying murder charge," Dodd said.
Assistant attorney general Kris Leonard argued, though, as did some of the justices, that Taylor had asked Candland whether he understood what was going on before accepting the plea.
"I don't know how much more blatant the court could have put it to make sure that this defendant is not confused."
"After the whole plea hearing is said and done … the court looks at the defendant and asks him, point-blank, are you confused in any way this morning?" Leonard said. "The defendant says no, enters his two guilty pleas, end of hearing. I don't know how much more blatant the court could have put it to make sure that this defendant is not confused."
Durham did question Leonard as to why judges wouldn't err on the side on letting defendants withdraw pleas and go to trial.
"I understand some of the motivation, but it seems backwards in terms of the way we run a criminal justice system," Durham said.
In addition to the time such actions could take, Leonard argued that there would also be the question of when to draw the line if a defendant goes back and forth between wanting to plead and wanting a trial.
The Utah Supreme Court took the issue under advisement. A ruling is expected in the coming months.