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MANTI — A prison inmate who faces a potential death penalty if convicted of killing his cellmate, allegedly wrote a letter to the Sanpete County Attorney's Office confessing his crime.
But attorneys for Steven Crutcher, 34, are now trying to have that confession thrown out before his trial, which is scheduled to begin in April.
On April 20, 2013, Rolando Cardona-Gueton, 62, was found dead in his cell at the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison. Officials weren't sure initially if his death was a homicide or a suicide.
After several months of investigation, Crutcher was charged in Manti's 6th District Court with aggravated murder, a capital offense. In July of 2014, prosecutors filed notice of their intent to seek the death penalty.
On July 24, 2013, Crutcher handed a letter to the officer investigating the death. The letter was addressed to the Sanpete County attorney. The next day, Crutcher was asked to write on the envelope specifically who the letter was intended for so there would be no confusion. He wrote Sanpete County Attorney Brody Keisel's name, according to court documents filed in September. Crutcher was charged with aggravated murder two months later.
Crutcher's attorney, Ed Brass, wants the letter thrown out. He argued in court documents that his client should have been appointed an attorney immediately after Cardona-Gueton was found dead. He also contends that Crutcher's statement was coerced.
"A lawyer should have been appointed for Mr. Crutcher when he asked for a lawyer. Because that did not happen, his statements and letters subsequent to the request must be suppressed. He could not have knowingly and intelligently waived his Miranda rights without first being given access to an attorney to consult on the matter. Independently of this issue, his statements must be suppressed because they are the product of coercion by the state," Brass wrote in court documents.
The Sanpete County Attorney's Office, however, argued that because it was originally a suicide investigation, Crutcher didn't need an attorney present.
"Defendant was not being investigated for a homicide when he invoked his Miranda rights, and thus his analysis of death penalty precedent is irrelevant. Further, attaching a right to counsel prior to charges being filed would be in direct conflict with existing case law and with the distinction recognized by the Utah Supreme Court between investigation and charging. In addition, defendant's testimony showed no sign of being coerced," according to documents filed by the Utah Attorney General's Office on Sept. 30.
Oral arguments were given by both sides in court on Friday. Crutcher's next court hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
Although Crutcher's alleged letter of confession has been sealed in court, documents filed in September in 6th District Court note that "Crutcher's confession and explanation of how the murder took place" includes "statements that the murder was performed with a ligature he removed from the crime scene."
Cardona-Gueton, a native Cuban, was in prison on a conviction of drug possession.
Race is believed to be a motivating factor in the killing.
A second letter allegedly confessing to the murder was also intercepted by the Department of Corrections. According to a motion filed by the state in April to have Crutcher's confession admitted in court: "The state has filed a motion asking the court to take judicial notice that Adolf Hitler's date of birth is April 20. April 20 is the day that defendant murdered Cardona-Gueton after months of sharing a cell with him. The motion … and the date of the murder reinforce the probative value of the two written confessions because they contain racial epithets and white supremacist slang and defendant's description of himself as a 'neo-Nazi skinhead.'"
Prosecutors also said that in Crutcher's letter, he also wrote that he killed Cardona-Gueton to get his "bolts." "At trial the state will argue that 'the bolts' are 'Schutzstaffel bolts,' which white supremacist gang members use to identify themselves. Thus, the very language of the two written confessions and the significance of the date of the murder are relevant to the proof of the crime and probative of defendant's guilt," according to the state's motion.
At the time of the killing, Crutcher was serving a 10-years-to-life sentence for kidnapping an Iron County Jail officer. On July 1, 2009, Crutcher had just finished talking to someone in the jail's visiting area and was walking back to his cell when he grabbed a female corrections officer and pulled her into a port area between the main facility and a secondary lobby. As he grabbed the officer, he pulled a device out from under his shirt that appeared to be a pipe bomb and ordered the officer to open the door.
The escape attempt failed and the bomb turned out to be fake.