A convicted killer on Utah's death row lost his first round of appeals Friday when the Utah Supreme Court upheld his death sentence.
Taberon Dave Honie was sentenced for murdering and sexually assaulting his ex-girlfriend's mother at her Cedar City home. Claudia Benn, 49, was home with her three granddaughters when Honie smashed through a glass patio door with a rock, slashed Benn's throat and sexually assaulted her with a kitchen knife.
The unanimous court rejected defense attorneys' claims that Utah's aggravated murder statute is unconstitutional, that the prosecutor's racially motivated statements unfairly influenced Honie's sentence, that there was insufficient evidence to warrant a capital murder conviction, and that the sentencing judge failed to recognize important mitigating factors.
Honie's attorney, Stephen McCaughey, argued Iron County Attorney Scott Burns erred in telling jurors about Benn's importance as a substance-abuse counselor for the Paiute tribe.
During closing statements in the 1999 trial, Burns said Honie, now 26, "did not murder a drunken Indian in the park. . . . He murdered someone that these people look up to. He murdered a superstar in the Paiute community."
The statement brought unnecessary focus on Honie's race as a member of the Hopi Native American Indian Tribe, McCaughey said.
But Friday's opinion determined that 5th District Judge Robert Braithwaite made it clear he gave no credence to Burns' statement when sentencing Honie to death.
"The court's decision on sentencing would have been the same had the victim been 'a drunken Indian in the park' or a drunken white man in the park, or a sober doctor in his office, etc.," Braithwaite said. "Each human life is of equal value."
McCaughey also argued on appeal that prosecutors did not prove Honie sexually assaulted Benn before she died. In order to sustain an aggravated murder charge, prosecutors must show the murder happened in concurrence with another felony. If the sexual assault was not committed while Benn was alive, he said, Honie could not have been charged with capital murder.
A medical examiner testified at trial that she couldn't be sure whether the assault happened before or after death. However, she said, it could have happened while Benn was still alive. That is enough to provide sufficient evidence of the crime, the justices ruled Friday.
They also said ample evidence exists to determine Honie committed aggravated burglary in using a rock to break the glass door and enter the house. That crime is also enough to elevate the charge to capital murder, the opinion states.
In addition to Friday's opinion, Justice Michael Wilkins offered another voice to the issue of when the sexual assault took place.
Honie's guilt of the sexual crimes "does not turn on whether the victim was still alive at the time of sexual contact," he said. While Utah's sex crimes statutes generally assume a living victim, they do not prescribe it.
"In the case at bar, defendant clearly achieved his sexual objectives through the use of force. The fact that the force was so great as to also result in the death of his victim, and that her death may have occurred before the sexual contact, should not reduce his culpability," Wilkins wrote.
Honie still has the option of appealing his death sentence to the U.S. Supreme Court, state district court and federal court.