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SALT LAKE CITY — A man sentenced to life in prison without parole for murdering and dismembering a 15-year-old Hyrum girl will remain there for his natural life, but the Utah Supreme Court reversed an aggravated kidnapping conviction against him Tuesday.
Cody Lynn Nielsen, who was sentenced in 2004 for the death of Trisha Ann Autry, asked the high court to review the location of his trial, the strength of evidence to support kidnapping charges, and whether the kidnapping count should be merged with the aggravated murder count, since it was presented as the aggravating factor the charge of aggravated murder.
In the majority ruling written by Justice Thomas Lee and handed down Tuesday, the court affirmed Nielsen's convictions for aggravated murder and desecration of a body, but threw out his convictions for kidnapping and aggravated kidnapping.
Autry went missing on June 24, 2000. About one year later, the girl's jawbone and articles of her clothing were found at the Predator Facility — a Cache County wildlife research facility where Nielsen worked at the time of the murder. Several hundred charred bone fragments were discovered at other sites inside the 165-acre facility.
The girl's body pointed to blunt force trauma injuries. It is believed the girl was killed and then systematically dismembered and her remains burned almost beyond recognition.
According to the ruling, Nielsen met the girl in April 2000 and Autry told her friend the man would follow her and try to call her at her home. The teenager eventually began calling home and asking for rides to avoid walking home from school.
The girl's mother said she believed the teenager went for a solitary walk in the early morning hours of June 24. Autry's father had cancer and the family was to meet that day to discuss his condition, which her mother said previously may have prompted the girl to seek some solitude.
The trial was held in Cache County but with jurors from neighboring Box Elder County, which Nielsen questioned on appeal. The justices determined that the decision to take that option was "a reasonable one among many."
As for the kidnapping charge, Lee wrote that the trial judge found that it was a lesser, included crime in the aggravating kidnapping and ordered that the charges be merged, but the court record never reflected that. Because of that, the high court merged the counts and eliminated the kidnapping conviction.
Nielsen had also argued that there was not sufficient evidence to support the kidnapping charges, alleging that the state failed to show Autry was taken against her will. The high court agreed that the evidence was circumstantial, but sufficient, given the testimony about Autry's fear of Nielsen.
Finally, the man was requesting that the aggravated kidnapping count and two counts of desecration of a body be thrown out as they were aggravating factors that justified the aggravated murder charge. The justices agreed that the aggravated kidnapping charge should have been merged with the murder charge.
"Because the aggravated kidnapping conviction was the sole aggravator presented to the jury at the guilt phase, the aggravated kidnapping offense was 'established by proof of the same or less than all the facts required to establish the commission of the offense charged,'" Lee wrote. "The failure to identify this problem was a clear error. Our case law on the merger of predicate offenses with aggravated crimes is clear and well-established."
The aggravated kidnapping conviction and sentence, which had been a term of one to 15 years to be served consecutive to the life without parole sentence, was thrown out, but the court left the murder conviction and sentence, as well as the desecration convictions, "undisturbed."