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An appeals court has ruled that a Magna man convicted in his girlfriend's 1996 murder received ineffective assistance from his defense attorney and should get a new trial.
In an opinion issued Wednesday, the Utah Court of Appeals found Billy Justin Charles' attorney failed to call several witnesses who might have helped his defense during the 2009 trial.
"Although each piece of evidence ... is not, by itself, overwhelmingly suggestive of defendant's innocence, taken together this evidence undermines our confidence in the jury's verdict," the Court of Appeals stated in its ruling.
The Utah Attorney General's Office will now consider appealing to the state's Supreme Court, Assistant Attorney General Ryan Tenney said.
"We're very disappointed in the ruling," Tenney said. "We think the Court of Appeals got it wrong."
Prosecutors filed charges against Charles in 2007, 11 years after Jamie Ellen Weiss was found dead in a bathtub in her Magna home. While the case was built on circumstantial evidence, Tenney said, "there was far more evidence than was needed to convict him of this crime."
Prosecutors filed the charges against Charles, now 35, after a jailhouse informant told officials Charles had offered a confession of the slaying to him.
Weiss was 18 when she was found dead in her Magna home on Aug. 7, 1996. While she was found submerged in a bathtub, medical experts said she had no water in her lungs and had, in fact, died from blunt force trauma.
At the 2009 trial, Chief Medical Examiner Todd Grey testified Weiss likely died sometime before Charles went to work at 6 a.m. But Charles told police his girlfriend had helped him start his car that morning, because he could not shift the gears on his car without help if it rested on an incline.
In his appeal, Charles said his defense attorney failed to present evidence that would have corroborated his story that his girlfriend was alive when he left for work.
The court also found the defense failed to put Weiss' cousin, who reportedly saw another car in the woman's driveway on the morning of her death, on its witness list.
But Tenney said those witnesses would not have changed the jury's verdict.
"They had some things to say that would have helped him and other things that would have definitely hurt his case," Tenney said. "[The cousin] spoke to Jamie between 1 and 3 that morning. She had suggested to him on the phone that the defendant was being abusive toward her that very morning."
Charles' appellate attorney, Troy Booher, said his client has maintained his innocence for the last 15 years. Booher also questioned the credibility of the jailhouse informant, a convicted felon who received a 32-day jail sentence for a burglary charge despite a recommendation from Adult Probation and Parole that he be returned to prison.
"We're very happy with the result," Booher said. "We're looking forward to a new trial where we can get all the evidence presented."
Charles' trial attorney, Robin Ljungberg, could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday.