SALT LAKE CITY (Jan. 30, 2015) — The Utah Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the murder, aggravated robbery, and drug-dealing convictions of Michael Jones in State v. Jones. Nearly two years after hearing oral argument, Assoc. Chief Justice Nehring authored the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Durrant, Justice Durham, Justice Parrish and Justice Lee joined concluding, “We determine that each of Mr. Jones’s challenges to his convictions for murder, aggravated robbery, and unlawful distribution of a controlled substance fail. Accordingly, we affirm his convictions.”
“We have some of the most capable and skilled attorneys in the nation working in the Utah Attorney General’s Criminal Appeals Division,” said Attorney General Sean Reyes. “This unanimous decision by the Utah Supreme Court is evidence of the excellent appellate work performed in our office. Assistant Attorney General John Nielsen’s dedication to justice was an important element in this final outcome.”
The victim, Tara Brennan was a Stanford graduate and law student in California who struggled with a cocaine addiction and returned home to Utah to overcome her drug problem. She was found strangled to death in her car in 2004. After the police exhausted all leads and suspects, the case went cold for two years until a new kind of DNA testing (called Y-STR DNA, which focuses on the DNA of the Y chromosome) implicated Michael Jones. She met Jones near the homeless shelter and together they bought and smoked cocaine.
The evidence (found under the victim’s fingernails) showed that Jones was one of a very few people who could have left it. Police also found Jones’s DNA on a cigarette in the victim’s car. The court held that the Y-STR DNA evidence was reliable enough to be admissible to show identity, even though it did not identify Jones as the only possible contributor. Jones claimed various errors by both the trial court and his counsel, but the Supreme Court held that all lacked merit, many of them because any error would not have made a difference in light of the compelling DNA evidence.
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