30-year sentence in murder-arson that still baffles
Seventeen months later, and after sitting through a two-week jury trial, a Mesa County judge on Tuesday said he was no closer to understanding who among two men prosecuted in the murder of an Orchard Mesa man bore greater responsibility.
“I can’t for the life of me decide who the principal actor is here,” District Judge Thomas Deister said before passing sentence against 27-year-old Julius Sutton, who has maintained his innocence in the June 12, 2012, killing of 51-year-old Bill Smith.
The judge on Tuesday sentenced Sutton to serve 30 years in prison following his Aug. 7 jury trial conviction on counts of second-degree murder, first-degree assault, first-degree arson, tampering with evidence, abuse of a corpse, conspiracy to commit first-degree arson and conspiracy to commit first-degree tampering with physical evidence.
Deister in August also issued a 30-year prison sentence for 23-year-old Lucos Schultz, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit first-degree murder in Smith’s death, in which the man’s body was burned inside an RV parked at 830 Unaweep Ave.
Sutton and Schultz were charged identically with murder by the District Attorney’s Office under a complicity theory of the crime, which testimony suggested was an alcohol-fueled, violent end to a night of partying among three strangers.
Sutton and Schultz gave varying statements to authorities, which changed over time, implicating each other for the killing, according to testimony.
Testimony from Sutton’s trial suggested Smith was dead after being assaulted by the time his body was burned in an intentionally set fire inside his RV. Prosecutors said it was an attempt to destroy evidence.
Schultz, who testified in Sutton’s trial, told the jury he was walking down Unaweep Avenue when he was invited by Sutton to join a party at Smith’s RV. Schultz had a fresh pint of vodka after paying a stranger to buy it at a nearby liquor store. Clerks had refused to sell to an intoxicated Schultz.
Schultz testified Smith hit him over the head with one of the numerous bottles of alcohol consumed between the men. In a statement to detectives, Schultz said Sutton had stepped on Smith’s throat while he was on the ground. Public defender Thea Reiff said Schultz’s claims belie physical evidence in the case, which include a substantial amount of blood found in one of Schultz’s shoes. It’s unknown if the shoe was tested for DNA.
An autopsy showed Smith died of a combination of wounds, including two sharp-force injuries, which were considered potential stab wounds, and a crushed bone in his neck.
While Sutton wasn’t known to carry a knife, Schultz was, Reiff said Tuesday. Reiff said one of Schultz’s knives remains unaccounted for.“There was very little law enforcement effort to recover that knife,” she said. “There is nothing in evidence in this case that accounts for (Smith’s) stab wounds and who caused them.”
After Sutton was convicted in August, Deister denied two defense motions seeking a new trial, which argued there was insufficient evidence.
Prosecutors noted Smith’s DNA was found on Sutton’s pants in no less than 20 separate spots. The pants were found by police inside a home where Sutton had been staying.
Regardless who the principal actor was in Smith’s death, Deister said neither of the two men was credible. “Both of you lied,” the judge told Sutton. “I cannot accept that you’re a pillar of honesty.”