Utah Court of Appeals reverses murder conviction, ruling DNA expert should have been hired

The Utah Court of Appeals has reversed a conviction for the 2014 murder of a Provo woman. They ruled Jerad Gourdin should have a new trial because his attorney did not hire a DNA expert.

The Utah Court of Appeals has reversed a conviction for the 2014 murder of a Provo woman. They ruled Jerad Gourdin should have a new trial because his attorney did not hire a DNA expert. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — In 2018, four years after a 60-year-old Provo woman was found strangled to death in her home, a man was finally charged with killing her. But that man's conviction has now been overturned by the Utah Court of Appeals.

Belen Perez's son returned home from work on May 21, 2014, to find his mother strangled to death with an electrical cord from a boombox. Chemicals were poured over her body, likely to destroy evidence, investigators say.

A neighbor, Jerad Dale Gourdin, was charged in 4th District Court with murder committed for pecuniary gain, a first-degree felony, and after being found guilty, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Gourdin was also found guilty of aggravated assault, a third-degree felony, for stabbing a neighbor with a screwdriver on May 22, 2014. He was sentenced to a term of zero to five years in prison in that case.

During the murder trial, Gourdin's then-girlfriend testified that he acted strangely, staying inside during the investigation instead of going out to see what the police were doing. A store clerk also said he had seemed paranoid that day. Multiple neighbors said he had been going around offering to do yard work and seemed under the influence of drugs, making them feel uneasy.

At the time, Gourdin had recently been released from prison and was living two doors away from Perez. Police said he initially told them he had offered to do yard work for Perez and stood at her doorway. Later, they said he admitted to shaking her hand and touching her address book.

One of Gourdin's cellmates also testified that he had hinted that he had committed murder — a requirement to join a gang — and that he had concerns he had left something at the scene "like a cigarette butt or something," according to the Utah Court of Appeals' written opinion, issued in May.

Another cellmate said he had shown a 187 tattoo on his chest, which is prison slang for murder, and answered affirmatively that he "(had) a body," saying it was a Hispanic person. The court's opinion said he told his cellmate that he had been looking for money for drugs and was worried his DNA was at the scene because of his sweat — although he poured bleach on the victim. The cellmate said Gourdin told him he planned to set everything on fire, but police came too quickly.

A cigarette butt was found in Perez's backyard, and neither she nor her son smoked.

Gourdin was found guilty after a 10-day trial in December 2019.

Jerad Dale Gourdin was convicted in the 2014 murder of his 60-year-old neighbor, Belen Perez. The Utah Court of Appeals granted him a new trial in May 2024 after the court agreed with Gourdin's claim of ineffective counsel.
Jerad Dale Gourdin was convicted in the 2014 murder of his 60-year-old neighbor, Belen Perez. The Utah Court of Appeals granted him a new trial in May 2024 after the court agreed with Gourdin's claim of ineffective counsel. (Photo: Utah County Jail)

After the conviction, he claimed his attorney was ineffective for not consulting with a DNA expert or calling a DNA expert to testify at the trial. He claimed he was entitled to a new trial, and the Utah Court of Appeals agreed.

The court's opinion, filed on May 16, explained that Gourdin met the requirements of showing his attorneys acted below the reasonable standard, and there is a reasonable probability that the attorneys' errors may have affected the result of the trial.

The opinion says criminal defense attorneys have an obligation to investigate the facts in their client's case. It notes that Gourdin's attorney did not request the notes or data associated with the prosecutors' DNA reports, in addition to not consulting with his own expert. The judges said if the attorney had asked for the files showing the inconclusive DNA results, they would have realized an expert was required to help them understand the files.

"It would not be evident, to a person without scientific knowledge and training, that the document contains conclusions potentially helpful to Gordon," the opinion says.

There are many circumstances where an attorney would not need to hire an expert, but the judges said this specific situation was unique.

The opinion says the major DNA source on a cigarette butt found in the victim's backyard was female, and an informal analysis found the minor DNA profile also did not match Gourdin. The judges said the evidence that excludes Gourdin as the person associated with that cigarette could have changed the outcome of the trial — but that evidence was not presented.

Before the trial, it was unclear if the cigarette would be a major factor in the case. However, it ended up being brought up frequently as it became an important part of the prosecution's case as they suggested other evidence pointed to it being Gourdin's, including the brand.

The court's opinion says jurors were interested in the cigarette butt evidence, asking seven questions about the cigarette.

"In the end, our confidence in the outcome of the trial, as it was presented to the jury, is undermined by the new evidence Gourdin has unearthed," the opinion says, referring to the DNA evidence about the cigarette.

His attorneys explained they had not hired experts because they believed testimony from the prosecution's expert would be more effective, and there was a risk further DNA investigations could result in evidence that was less favorable to Gourdin.

Gourdin also claimed that his attorneys should have insisted that more of the recordings of his interviews with police be played, allowing the jury to hear him say he did not murder the woman without opening himself up to cross-examination by prosecutors.

However, the Court of Appeals did not agree with this claim or claims that Gourdin's attorneys should have made certain objections or gotten additional DNA testing.

Because his conviction is now reversed, Gourdin's case will go back to the district court, and he will have a new trial.

This court's opinion was authored by Judge Ryan Harris. Two other judges, Michele Christiansen and David Mortensen, agreed with the opinion.

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Emily Ashcraft joined KSL.com as a reporter in 2021. She covers courts and legal affairs, as well as health, faith and religion news.

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