Oral arguments on the issue of whether convicted murderer George Wesley Hamilton should get another trial resumed Friday.
Hamilton was convicted of brutally murdering 19-year-old Sharon Sant of Fillmore on Aug. 1, 1985.Last June, the Utah Supreme Court ordered 4th District Judge George E. Ballif to determine whether Hamilton deserves a new trial on grounds that a juror brought two newspaper articles about the case into jury deliberations. The jury subsequently convicted Hamilton, who is serving five years to life in the Utah State Prison.
Oral arguments Friday by public defender Fred Metos and Millard County Attorney Warren Peterson constitute the last phase of an evidentiary hearing that began last Sept. 15. The hearing, in which Ballif questioned all former jurors, was held to determine whether the newspaper articles prejudiced the jury's decision in convicting Hamilton.
Ballif, who presided over Hamilton's second-degree murder trial, repeatedly admonished the eight jurors during the trial not to read newspaper stories or watch television reports about the proceedings.
"We've got good grounds for a new trial," Metos said. "The attorney general's office agrees there was an error. The question is whether or not it merits a new trial."
If Ballif grants a new trial, Hamilton likely would be transferred from prison to the custody of Millard County Sheriff Ed Phillips.
"Technically, they would have nothing to hold him in prison," Metos said.
If Ballif rules against granting a new trial, Metos said the decision would be appealed to the state Supreme Court. Prosecutors would have the same option if Ballif rules for a new trial.
Peterson refused comment on Hamilton's chances of getting a second trial, but he said he is prepared to prosecute the case again with Assistant Utah Attorney General John Soltis.
Metos said a different public defender would have to be chosen to represent Hamilton.
Attorneys have remained tight-lipped about the content of the newspaper articles in question, but they may have dealt with Robert Bott, a second suspect in Sant's murder.
Murder charges against Bott were dropped for lack of evidence. After believing he had been granted immunity from prosecution, Bott retracted earlier denials of involvement and confessed to sexually abusing Sant and mutilating her body after Hamilton killed her.
Sant, a Southern Utah State College student, disappeared Aug. 1, 1985, while hitchhiking from Cedar City to Fillmore to attend a funeral. A road crew found her mutilated torso about two weeks later in a shallow grave off an I-15 exit near Cove Fort.
Hamilton's trial was moved from Millard County to Utah County following a change of venue request.
Millard County officials said they hope Hamilton isn't granted a new trial. The county spent about $200,000 on the trial, $105,000 of it Hamilton's defense. Cost of a new trial would be less because detective work would not have to duplicated.