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PROVO — Gearing up for the jury trial for a man accused of murdering two young adults and dropping their bodies into a mine in 2017, Utah's 4th District Court considered multiple motions this week.
Jerrod William Baum, 45, is facing murder charges in the deaths of Riley Powell, 18, and Brelynne "Breezy Otteson, 17. The two disappeared in December 2017, and their bodies were found in the Tintic Standard Mine just outside of Eureka in March 2018. Baum was arrested shortly thereafter.
Baum was charged with two counts of aggravated murder, a first-degree felony; two counts of aggravated kidnapping, a first-degree felony; two counts of desecration of a dead body, a third-degree felony; obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony; and possession of a dangerous weapon as a restricted person, a third-degree felony.
This week, Judge Derek Pullan considered a significant number of motions from both the prosecutors and the defense primarily regarding what evidence and testimony will be allowed at the trial, attempting to find a balance between adding undue prejudice about the defendant to the jury and providing evidence that is necessary for the case.
Prosecutors say Powell and Otteson were friends of Baum's then-girlfriend, Morgan Lewis Henderson. Police say Henderson witnessed the murders and talked to them about what happened after she was pulled over for speeding months after the search for the victims began. She pleaded guilty to 10 counts of obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony, admitting to helping Baum hide evidence including the victims' car.
The judge considered whether certain medical records from Henderson should be obtained or submitted, and whether some information about Henderson should be able to be considered in trial. He ruled against excluding testimony from Henderson that she acted under compulsion in her aid of Baum, an exclusion the defense attorneys asked for since she pleaded guilty.
Pullan also considered whether the defendant could be referred to as a white supremacist. He ruled to allow some testimony that is relevant to the charges but to exclude from the evidence other aspects of white supremacy.
The judge also decided that the two victims could not be referred to as "children" or "kids" by witnesses or attorneys at the trial, noting that one of the victims was 18 and the other was only a month away from turning 18. Pullan said they should be referred to instead as "young adults" or "young people," in addition to son and daughter.
On Friday morning, the court considered the defense attorneys' claims that the prosecutors had acted unfairly and made errors when prosecuting the case. The defense claimed, among other things, that comments by Utah County District Attorney and Utah County Sheriff's Office officials to media could cause prejudice against Baum in a jury; that prosecutors entered a plea agreement with Henderson that forced her to stick to the same story and valued "consistency over truth"; and that prosecutors did not look into evidence which could be exculpatory.
The defense asked for the entire Utah County District Attorney's Office to be disqualified from the case "in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety."
Prosecutors spoke about the claims against them, arguing that they did not believe there was a problem prior in the sheriff's office prior to when the comments in question were made and that the sheriff's office has since offered training to those involved. They also said they believed they had fulfilled their duty with considering evidence, and that they did not have a duty to seek evidence.
The judge has not yet ruled on whether there will be any sanctions on the prosecution for the allegations brought against them by the defense attorneys.
The court also granted a motion to quash a subpoena to KSL, which asked for things including the names of any person who has made a comment on KSL's website. The defense argued the subpoena would help find jury members who did not have prejudice in the case based on what they had read in the news. The prosecutors argued that there is no law allowing attorneys to subpoena information regarding a jury.
David Leavitt initially said that he intended to seek the death penalty for Baum, however, he retracted that in September to the dismay of some of the family of the victims.
The six-month jury trial was scheduled to begin in January 2022, but it was delayed to Feb. 23 after an agreement by both parties at a hearing in September when the court discussed deadlines for steps that need to be taken before the trial.
Correction: This story initially said that the trial was delayed as part of this week's hearings. The trial was delayed one month in September and the dates were not altered in this week's hearings.