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Trial begins for man accused of killing sister's boyfriend with punches

Cole Pedersen, now 25.
Cole Pedersen, now 25.
Salt Lake County Jail

WEST JORDAN — "You wanna dance? Let's dance," Blake Burningham allegedly told Cole Pedersen before taking off his shirt and squaring off with him.

Moments later, after being hit in the head by Pedersen and knocked to the ground, Burningham lay motionless. He went into cardiac arrest after being punched and never regained consciousness.

Burningham, 24, died a few hours later at a local hospital.

Now, a five-man, four-woman jury must decide whether Pedersen is guilty of manslaughter, or if Burningham's death was the result of a tragic accident, and if Pedersen was only trying to defend himself and his sister.

Pedersen, 25, was charged Sept. 15, 2015, with manslaughter, a second-degree felony. On Monday, a jury was seated and opening arguments in the scheduled four-day trial were delivered.

CJ Pedersen, Cole's younger sister, had been dating Burningham for several years, and the two were reportedly engaged, according to prosecutors.

On Aug. 29, 2015, Pedersen called her brother crying and asked him to pick her up after she got into a fight with Burningham. Pedersen picked her up at a school near Burningham's house.

But rather than drive home, Pedersen drove back to Burningham's house, 5973 W. Moon Shadow Drive, believing he had pushed or punched his sister.

Pedersen and Burningham got into an argument in the driveway. Unified police say the two men pushed each other before Pedersen punched the left side of Burningham's face, then punched him again while he was on the ground.

Burningham was taken to Riverton Hospital, then flown by medical helicopter to Intermountain Medical Center. He went into cardiac arrest after being punched, was placed on life support and died later that day.

During opening arguments Monday, attorneys for both sides told jurors that over the next few days, they would hear conflicting witness accounts of what actually happened that night.

Salt Lake County deputy district attorney Nathaniel Sanders says Burningham never punched Pedersen, who continued to assault him even after he was knocked out cold.

"They were standing face to face. He struck him in the face. That strike laid Blake on the ground. He didn't move from that point. After that, Cole knelt over Blake and continued to strike him," Sanders said. "From that point, from when he first hit the ground, there was no response from Blake."

Earlier in the evening, CJ Pedersen and Burningham had gotten together with Burningham's brother and his girlfriend to eat pizza and drink beer, Sanders said.

But defense attorney Carl Anderson said drinking was an everyday occurrence for Burningham. And when he and his brother got together on nights they didn't have to work the next morning, they drank excessively, he said. And when they drank, they became angry and had a history of fighting each other, Anderson said.

"They were getting drunk and they were getting angry," Sanders said of that night.

At some point during the night, the Burningham brothers started fighting in the front yard. CJ Pedersen attempted to get between them and break up the fight.

"CJ Pedersen was either hit, pushed or shoved by Blake. Whether it was on purpose or an accident is unclear," Sanders said.

This was the first time that Burningham had ever hit Pedersen, according to attorneys. Shocked and upset, she walked off. CJ Pedersen went to a nearby school, where she called her brother and asked if he could pick her up.

Anderson said CJ Pedersen was hysterical when she called her brother, and he knew something was wrong.

After picking up his sister, Anderson said Cole Pedersen wanted to confront Burningham and find out what happened, in part to make sure she would be safe in the future.

"It's important for you to understand the bond Cole and his baby sister had," Anderson told the jury.

After convincing his sister to tell him where Burningham lived, he pulled up to the house about midnight, got out of the car and stood on the sidewalk in front of their house. The Burningham brothers, who were outside, immediately went toward him, Anderson said.

According to Anderson, Cole Pedersen pushed Blake Burningham and told him to back off. He said his client told him four times to back off and that he was only there to get his side of the story, Anderson said.

That's when Burningham took off his shirt and allegedly asked him, "You wanna dance? Let's dance," to which Pedersen replied, "You really want to do this now?" according to Anderson.

Anderson says Burningham took a swing at his client but missed. At the same time, Pedersen struck Burningham, whom he claimed "staggered" backward before falling to the ground and did not directly drop.

Anderson admitted his client then punched Burningham once again when he was on the ground. But when Burningham didn't react to his punch, "Cole knows he's done and he stands up." Pedersen then sat on the curb and waited for police and an ambulance to arrive.

But Sanders told jurors that others who were there will testify that Pedersen continued punching.

"He continues to hit him in his head, with his head against concrete, at least once, more likely more than once," he said.

"An unforeseeable accident. That's what this case is really about," Anderson said. "(The fight) was unavoidable, and Cole Pedersen was justified in how he acted that morning."

Burningham's brother, parents and Pedersen's sister are expected to be called to the witness stand during the trial.

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam