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LOGAN — He didn't pull the trigger, but a teenage boy accused of plotting with his friend to kill 14-year-old Deserae Turner pleaded guilty Tuesday.
Jayzon Decker, who turned 17 last week, could barely be heard as he responded "guilty" to the two charges negotiated in a deal with prosecutors, hanging his head as the details of the crime were read in court.
Decker pleaded guilty in adult court to attempted aggravated murder, a first-degree felony, and obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony. A charge of aggravated robbery, a first-degree felony, and three additional counts of obstructing justice were dismissed as part of the deal.
As Decker stood shackled before the judge Tuesday, Deserae sat close between her parents in the courtroom gallery and listened as he entered his pleas. The girl shed quiet tears as Cache County Attorney James Swink described the medical challenges she will experience for the rest of her life, including partial paralysis and daily headaches from the bullet still lodged in her skull.
Decker, who was 16 at the time, and his friend, 16-year-old Colter Peterson, lured Deserae to an out-of-the-way section of a dry canal on Feb. 16 as part of a plot to kill the girl. During a preliminary hearing for Peterson in March, police testified the two teens had conspired to "get rid of" Deserae when they grew tired of the 14-year-old's messages on social media.
The two boys were originally charged as juveniles, but prosecutors successfully argued to have the boys certified as adults and transferred to the 1st District Court.
Following the hearing, Deserae's father, Matt Turner, became emotional as he read a statement saying that while his now 15-year-old daughter is recovering "slowly and slightly," her family is deeply grateful she is still with them.
"What happened 10 months ago was a senseless tragedy that forever changed not only these three lives but also the lives of their families and our community," Turner said. "This has been very hard, but through even our darkest days, we have seen the good in people."
Turner also thanked the countless unnamed people who have generously supported his family, allowing them to pursue numerous treatment options for Deserae. He wept as he described the joy his daughter is finding as she trains her new service dog.
"It is a true miracle that Des is with us today. As we reflect this Christmas season, we see the goodness and light of our faith in the kindness of others, and for this we are thankful," Turner said.
Shannon Demler, Decker's attorney, emphasized following the hearing that Decker did not shoot Deserae, but that he has decided to take responsibility for his role in the attack.
"He knows that he isn't the one who shot the young lady, obviously, but he knows that he did some things wrong and shouldn't have been involved to the level that he was," Demler said. "He has had a lot of time to think about it. He obviously wishes he could take what happened back, but he knows that he can't and he needs to move on."
As he fought to keep the case in juvenile court earlier this year, Demler argued that his client should never have been charged in the case. As the teen faces sentencing, Demler noted that his age and lack of criminal history until now are mitigating factors that should be considered.
Swink read a detailed description during the hearing Tuesday describing the boys' plot, including arming themselves with knives after they agreed that slitting Deserae's throat would be quieter. They brought along a .22 caliber pistol as a backup plan, Swink said, and it was Decker who gave the signal when it was time for Peterson to use it.
While Peterson has admitted to shooting Deserae in the back of the head, prosecutors have alleged Decker was the first to suggest hurting her. In order to keep Deserae nearby until the coast was clear for Peterson to attack, Decker claimed to have dropped a ring in the mud and asked the girl to help him find it, Swink said. It was one of the first things Deserae asked about after waking up in the hospital, according to testimony in court.
Deserae was found eight hours after the shooting by friends of her family who had gone searching for her in the cold and the snow. Doctors have said she will struggle with seeing, walking, eating and thinking for the rest of her life. Swink noted Tuesday that frostbite from hours in the cold has left Deserae with a condition that fills the bottom of her feet with painful sores.
Following the hearing, Swink called the deal "a blessing" that spares the Turner family from having to relive their traumatic experience on a witness stand and accomplishes everything prosecutors would have wanted had the case gone to trial.
"This is a horrific act. The sense of betrayal to Deserae, you can't put words to that," Swink said "This was also a betrayal of trust to the families of these defendants. They were taught better than this."
When Decker is sentenced Feb. 7, the day that had originally been scheduled to begin a jury trial, he faces a possibility of 15 years and up to life for the attempted murder charge, along with one to 15 years for obstructing justice. While prosecutors are still deciding what to present at the hearing, Swink said he anticipates calling for the sentences to run back to back.
The judge also has the option of a lesser sentence for the attempted murder charge: six years to life or 10 years to life.
Peterson pleaded guilty in October 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.
He also agreed to testify against Decker if the other boy's case proceeded to trial. In the meantime, Peterson's sentencing hearing has yet to be scheduled while his friend's case advanced. When he is sentenced, Peterson faces a potential maximum penalty of at least 15 and up to life in prison.