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Judge rejects killer's request

Seruka Tiliaia
Seruka Tiliaia

One chapter in a sad saga came to a close Friday as 3rd District Judge Leslie Lewis turned down a convicted murderer's request for a new trial.

But Seruka Tiliaia, the man a jury found guilty of fatally shooting a 19-year-old woman, will likely take his case to a higher court.

Tiliaia, now 22, was convicted of killing Kehndra Isakson, whom he had never met, at a party Tiliaia crashed in 2001. During the trial, evidence showed Tiliaia went on a shooting spree after flying into a rage over a dice game, and three eyewitnesses testified Tiliaia deliberately took aim at Isakson and shot her, leaving her to die in her sister's arms in a doorway.

The judge sentenced Tiliaia, a previously convicted felon, to five years to life in prison for first-degree felony murder, one to 15 years for second-degree felony aggravated assault, one to 15 years for second- degree felony obstruction of justice and zero to five years for third-degree felony aggravated assault.

The sentences were ordered to run consecutively.

However, Tiliaia maintained at his sentencing that someone else fired the fatal shots that killed Isakson. His attorneys since then submitted an affidavit from a witness who claimed to have new information that could exonerate Tiliaia, and he wanted a new trial.

But this witness has since decided he doesn't want to testify.

Based on that information, Lewis on Friday ruled against Tiliaia's motion for another trial.

"There is no basis for a new trial," the judge said. "I feel very strongly a new trial isn't appropriate."

However, Lewis did not allow prosecutors to reinstate a second-degree felony charge of a restricted person (a convicted felon) possessing a handgun against Tiliaia because that had already been dismissed at the request of a previous prosecutor.

The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office had asked the court to dismiss the charge. But the information was turned over to the U.S. Attorney's Office with the idea it might turn into a charge in federal court.

However, that office apparently didn't get permission from the U.S. Justice Department to file such a charge, so the matter was sent back to the local district attorney's office, according to prosecutor Jeffrey Hall.

Defense attorney Vernice Trease said reinstating a charge in state district court that already had been dismissed raised troubling questions of double jeopardy — and the judge agreed.

Outside the courtroom, Kehndra Isakson's parents, Ken and Cindy Isakson, said they were pleased with outcome, although they are not looking forward to a wearisome round of appeals.

"I'm content with what the judge has ruled," Ken Isakson said. "I have a lot of respect for Judge Lewis; I think she did a fine job. I'm also very happy with Jeff Hall."

Tiliaia now can appeal his case directly to the Utah Supreme Court. Because his is a first-degree felony case, it bypasses the Utah Court of Appeals and goes to the state high court.

No matter what, the Isaksons are sure of one thing: They will attend every hearing.