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Convicted killer seeks reversal in 2003 case

State’s witnesses unreliable, attorney for Box Elder man says

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The attorney for a Box Elder man convicted of murdering a drinking buddy for his money told the Utah Court of Appeals Thursday that the state's witnesses could not positively identify his client as a man seen at a field where the victim's bludgeoned body was dumped.

During oral arguments, Dee Smith said state prosecutors did not have sufficient evidence to convict Gerardo Gonzales of first-degree murder in the death of Alberto Hernandez.

Hernandez's body, which had a crushed skull, was found in a field near Plymouth, Box Elder County, in March 2003. Earlier that day Hernandez had cashed a paycheck, and his wallet and money were found missing from his body. But while no one directly saw Gonzales around the time of the murder, prosecutors said there was enough circumstantial evidence that pointed to Gonzales as the killer.

Assistant attorney general Erin Riley argued that Gonzales had picked the victim up the day he disappeared to go drink beer. Later, a broke Gonzales suddenly had enough money to pay for motel bills and items at Wal-Mart.

Gonzales' girlfriend testified that they drove to a field to dump something. Although she was told not to look, the girlfriend said she felt Gonzales move something heavy out of the car and caught a glimpse of "black hair" near the trunk area.

However, Smith argued that after combing over the car, forensics experts could find no trace of DNA or other evidence that there had been a body in the trunk. As for his girlfriend, Smith said there was evidence that there was coercion by police in her testimony.

Two witnesses testified that they saw a white vehicle with a Hispanic male and white female, matching the description of Gonzales and his girlfriend, near the area of the body, but could not positively identify Gonzales.

"You have to look for corroborating evidence," Smith told the court, adding he felt there simply wasn't any to tie his client to the crime.

Riley said there was enough evidence to persuade a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Gonzales committed the crime and also pointed to the fact that the trial judge had rejected a claim of insufficient evidence.

Smith said he realized that the burden is steep in persuading the court of appeals to overturn a conviction by jury but felt a review of the evidence was needed.

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com