SALT LAKE CITY — Defense attorneys for the Utah man accused of killing a young couple and dumping their bodies in a mine shaft want a jury to consider three other deaths they are seeking to link to the state's key witness.
Lawyers for Jerrod Baum, 44, are seeking to present evidence tied to the overdose death of Morgan Henderson's mother, the suicide of her former husband and a car crash that killed another person in her circle. Prosecutors reject that Henderson, Baum's former girlfriend, had a role in anyone's death.
Baum is accused of killing Riley Powell, 18, and Brelynne "Breezy" Otteson, 17, three years ago in a jealous rage after the pair visited Henderson, his former girlfriend. Baum, of the tiny Juab County town of Mammoth, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of aggravated murder, a first-degree felony.
If he's convicted, prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.
Baum's attorneys want jurors to consider the other deaths under a legal rule called the doctrine of chances. The concept is that the more someone is accused of similar acts in similar situations, the less likely the person's involvement was innocent.
"The point is to say, 'OK, Morgan has stated that she's been nearby when these things have happened: the untimely deaths of people that have people in her immediate sphere of influence,'" defense attorney Dallas Young said Monday in a hearing held over videoconference. A statistician working for Baum's defense team calculated that the likelihood of that happening to anyone else in a year-and-a-half period is one in 45 billion, Young said.
Fourth District Judge Derek Pullan pushed back on the figure.
"It would seem to me that a person who is involved in the drug culture is likely to have many acquaintances die by overdose or by suicide," the judge said. Pullan didn't rule from the bench Monday, saying he will issue a decision at a later date.
The deaths at issue are:
- Morgan Henderson's mother Shelly Bowers, who died in 2017 of an overdose on painkillers she was prescribed after being struck by a car. Investigators reported that the former wife of Henderson's late husband alleged Henderson had previously tried to "mercy kill" her mother with fentanyl patches, court documents say.
- Her then-husband Tregen Lewis, whose 2016 shooting death was ruled a suicide. Henderson said he'd taken his life in front of her, court documents say.
- A man she was romantically involved with, Clint Lewis, who died while a passenger in a car that crashed into a tree in 2017. Another man at the wheel later pleaded guilty to a charge of manslaughter; Henderson wasn't in the car.
Prosecutors said the circumstances in each case were too different and any evidence of Henderson's involvement was weak or nonexistent.
"Whether Ms. Henderson participated in the killing of some other person — a claim the State highly contests — has nothing to do with her involvement in the deaths of Riley and Brelynne," Deputy Utah County Attorney Ryan McBride wrote in court papers filed ahead of the hearing.
Baum's defense team also wants to use the doctrine of chances to inform jurors of allegations Henderson has been involved in drug trafficking and tortured a cat. Separately, they are alleging misconduct by prosecutors, who have countered that they have followed the rules.
Arguments at Monday's daylong hearing delved into Henderson's mental health records and other potential evidence. But everyone agreed on one thing: her significance to the state's case.
"She is the case," Pullan noted. "This case turns on her testimony."
Henderson pleaded guilty in 2018 to 10 counts obstructing justice as part of a plea deal requiring her to testify against Baum, and later gave a vivid account of how she said Baum killed the pair.
Baum's defense attorneys asked Pullan to schedule a trial in spring or summer of 2022, while the state wants Baum to stand trial as soon as September, or in January at the latest.
If a trial is scheduled for later than September, prosecutors want Henderson to take the stand ahead of time in order to preserve a record of her testimony. They said she has long struggled with mental health and considered suicide, so they are worried she may take her own life if she leaves the residential treatment facility where she's currently staying. Defense attorneys pushed back, saying it's not clear that's likely to happen and such depositions typically take place when it's more certain a witness won't be able to testify later on.
Pullan didn't immediately rule on the request. Baum returns to court for a status conference on June 4.