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A 3rd District Court judge on Thursday weighed arguments on whether a former defense attorney for one of four people charged with the West Valley City golf course slaying of 18-year-old JoJo Lee Brandstatt in February 2009 could have passed on information about his client when he returned to a job at the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office.
Kent Morgan, a longtime Salt Lake County prosecutor, briefly represented Spencer Isaiah Cater, now 20, in the case. Cater's current defense counsel, Chad Steur, is arguing Cater's right to a fair trial may be impeded because Morgan may have passed on information about cater to colleague's at the D.A.'s office even though Morgan testified Thursday that he did not share information about Cater with anyone.
"I didn't discuss any confidences that I'd obtained from Mr. Cater with the D.A's office or anyone else," Morgan said. "Disclosing of confidence is the worst thing you can do ... other than stealing a client's money."
Following Thursday's nearly-day long hearing, Judge William Barrett ruled that Cater's confidence wasn't breached by Morgan's switch from a defense attorney to prosecutor last year.
The issue about Morgan's interaction with Cater came before Barrett, where arguments swayed into the interpersonal conflict Morgan had with former Salt Lake County District Attorney Lohra Miller. She fired Morgan in March 2008, claiming he had leaked confidential information to an escort service owner facing prostitution charges. After his termination, Morgan worked a stint as a defense attorney, before being reinstated as a county prosecutor in April 2009. He appealed his termination and the county Career Service Council deemed Morgan's termination was "not supported by substantial evidence."
Morgan filed a lawsuit against Miller and received a settlement worth $325,000 after filing a $1.7 million claim. He accepted an early retirement buyout as part of the settlement and is currently a criminal defense lawyer with the Dyer Law Group in Salt Lake City.
Morgan testified on Thursday that the D.A.'s office under Miller's helm had no set policy or procedures in place to screen attorneys who worked as defense attorneys but took jobs as prosecutors at the D.A.'s office. He said Miller and others were "only interested in finding a way to see if I'd leaked information" and didn't take time to make sure safeguards were in place so that attorneys didn't speak to Morgan about cases he'd worked on as a defense attorney.
Morgan noted that prosecutors didn't speak to him about cases they knew he'd worked on as a defense attorney once he returned to the D.A.'s office.
Steur argued that policies have changed under newly-elected D.A. Sim Gill. For example, when Jeff Hall, a longtime defense attorney, joined the D.A.'s office as a criminal prosecutor in January, employees received written notices not to speak with Hall about past cases he worked on as a defense attorney. There is now a written policy in place on the topic, Hall testified.
Steur also questioned why Cater's case is now being handled by the Utah Attorney General's Office, when lead counsel from the D.A.'s office, Stephen Nelson and Mike Postma as well as their supervisor Bob Stott objected to the move because they saw no conflict of interest.
Steur alleged Miller had the case transferred because of concerns over the flap she'd had with Morgan and the prostitution case, and she wanted to avoid the appearance of conflict associated with Morgan. He asked that the case be transferred back to the D.A.'s office, a motion which Barrett denied.
The fight over office politics has delayed the murder trial for the remaining defendants in the Brandstatt case. Barrett set Cater's next court hearing for May 10.
Antonie "Hunter" Farani, who was 14 when he shot and killed Brandsatt, is charged with one count of aggravated murder, two counts of aggravated kidnapping and five counts of aggravated robbery his case is pending, along with Cater's.
Farani's case is tied up in appeals, with his attorneys challenging a juvenile court judge's decision to transfer the case to adult court. A review hearing for Farani in district court is set before Barrett on June 6.
Meanwhile, two other defendants have already pleaded guilty to their roles in the crime.
Jeremiah "Jay" Ha'k Williamson, 27, pleaded guilty to first-degree felony murder in October and in December was ordered to 15 years to life in prison. Williamson admitted to driving the group around the evening of the crimes and drove Brandstatt to the golf course where he died.
Shardise "Kaiso" Malaga, 21, pleaded guilty to her role in the crime in March 2010 and was sentenced to serve 15 years to life in prison.
Farani confessed to killing Brandstatt on Feb. 6, 2009, in a videotaped interview with West Valley City police, according to prior court testimony. The teen, who turned 15 on Nov. 23, said he was high on marijuana and pressured to pull the trigger by Cater, who allegedly believed the victim "knew too much."
Gregory Brown, 21, has testified Brandstatt was targeted in part because he wore a red shirt and claimed allegiance to a Norteño gang, a rival of the defendants' Crips gang.
Brown said he was kidnapped by the four defendants when he met them at a West Valley City Wendy's to trade marijuana for a gun. The group robbed him and said if Brown was able to get $2,000 by the end of the night through robberies, they wouldn't kill him, he told the court.
According to Brown, he called Brandstatt, who agreed to meet up with the group at Kearns Junior High School with the address of a gang member to rob, he said. When he arrived, Brandstatt was wearing a red T-shirt and red shoelaces, a color that indicated a connection to Norteño gang members. Brown alleged Farani said, "Let's just finish off this Norte."
The defendants drove to the golf course where Brandstatt was shot and then allegedly coerced Brown into using a pellet gun to rob three convenience stores afterward. Defense attorneys have argued Brown was a willing participant and not a victim.