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LOGAN — Colter Peterson, who was 16 when police say he shot a 14-year-old girl in the back of the head at close range, leaving her with permanent disabilities, pleaded guilty to attempted aggravated murder Tuesday.
But despite entering into a plea deal and sparing Deserae Turner and her family a long trial, prosecutors did not agree to go easy on Peterson. Instead, they said they will push for life in prison when Peterson, now 17, is sentenced.
"We could not have got any more penalties had we gone to trial than what we got (in the plea deal) today," Cache County Attorney James Swink said after Tuesday's hearing. "The state is getting everything we could want at a jury trial."
In February, Peterson and Jayzon Decker, 16, devised a plot to lure Deserae into a secluded canal and kill her, according to charging documents. Initially, the boys planned on slitting the girl's throat because it was quieter, charges state.
But after luring Deserae into a dry canal in Smithfield on Feb. 16 under the guise of buying a knife, Peterson shot her in the back of the head at close range, according to prosecutors. The teen girl laid near death on the ground for eight hours before being found.
Deserae and her family were in court Tuesday as Peterson stood before 1st District Judge Kevin Allen to plead guilty.
Peterson was given a tissue to wipe away tears as the judge read through the facts of the case. He then talked about how the bullet the boy fired was still lodged in Deserae's head because doctors determined an operation to remove it would be too risky.
Deserae has paralysis on the left side of her body. She has problems seeing, walking, eating and thinking since the shooting, and doctors have said she will have disabilities for the rest of her life.
"Our daughter continues to struggle," said Deserae's father, Matt Turner, who then took a long pause and wiped away his tears. "She works every day to gain as much quality of life as she can. But her life will never be the same."
Turner read a brief statement after the hearing, thanking police and prosecutors. But he struggled to read, his body shaking at times as he recounted what his daughter has been through.
"Today was a step toward justice for Deserae," he said.
Turner also urged the public to never become complacent to horrible acts of violence.
"Please care for your neighbors both near and far. The whole world has become our neighbor, and for that we are very grateful," he said.
Peterson also struggled to speak as he entered guilty pleas, preferring to shake or nod his head when he could. His attorney, Mike McGinnis, said much like he was in court, Peterson struggled to get through the plea deal documents prior to the start of the hearing.
McGinnis said his client feels terrible but wants to take responsibility for his actions, and that's why he agreed to plead guilty, even though he could go to prison for the rest of his life.
"He pleaded guilty because he wanted to pay for what he did," McGinnis said. "That's all he can do now. He can't go back and change what happened. All he can do is take responsibility. He walked in there a boy and took it like a man today."
Peterson pleaded guilty to attempted aggravated murder, a first-degree felony, and an amended charge of robbery, a second-degree felony. In exchange, four counts of obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony, were dropped.
As part of the deal, sentencing will be delayed until Decker's case is resolved. His eight-day trial is scheduled for February. Because Peterson may be called to testify against Decker, prosecutors Tuesday made a motion to have them housed in separate detention facilities.
"The game has really changed now, judge," Swink argued. "I think they should be separated."
Prosecutors say there is too much opportunity now for the teens to see each other and potentially discuss the upcoming trial. Allen agreed and ordered that Peterson be moved to another facility.
McGinnis said his client would likely make a statement to Deserae at sentencing, but for now still isn't allowed to talk to her. After pleading guilty, Peterson was led back to the holding area of the courtroom, blankly staring ahead and avoiding eye contact with anyone, including his parents, who were seated in the front row.
A typical sentence for a first-degree felony is 15 years to life in prison. The judge will also have the option to sentence Peterson to six years to life or 10 years to life.