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Trial in teen’s cold case murder hinges on DNA, attorneys say

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HEBER CITY — A murder trial 20 years in the making is underway in Heber City, where a jury will consider whether a DNA link is enough to prove who killed a 17-year-old girl.

Opening arguments in the case of Joseph Michael Simpson, 49, were given Thursday in a trial expected to last through October. Simpson was charged three years ago with the December 1995 cold case murder of Krystal Lynn Beslanowitch, who was found naked with her skull beaten in with a rock on the banks of the Provo River in Midway.

Advances in DNA technology linked Simpson, a man who had served time in Utah for murder once before, to Beslanowitch's death in early 2013.

With Beslanowitch's lifestyle and her work as a prostitute that introduced her to Simpson, Wasatch County prosecutor McKay King told the seven-man, seven-woman jury that the coming weeks will be filled with evidence that "isn't Sunday dinner conversation."

Through 20 years worth of investigation, King told jurors the case will hinge on DNA evidence on Beslanowitch's body and the scene where she was found.

"That shows us Mr. Simpson had sex with Krystal proximate to her death, and he had his hand on the rock used to crush her skull," King said.

Richard Gale, Simpson's attorney, emphasized that in a case where DNA evidence is essential, it is important to remember that the findings revealed more than just a match to Simpson. Another man's DNA was also found on the rocks where she was found, and evidence on her body showed she had sex with two other men before she died.

"This is a case about DNA," Gale said. "Absolutely there is a connection in this case to Joe, but a connection is not enough."

Simpson is charged with aggravated murder, a first-degree felony. The charge is a capital offense, but prosecutors opted not to seek the death penalty if he is convicted.

Involved in prostitution and drug use since she was 15, Beslanowitch came to Salt Lake City from Washington about six months before her death with a man King said was both her fiance and her pimp.

"Her choices did not give up her right to be alive," King said.

With no way to identify Beslanowitch's body and no one in Wasatch County who recognized her, media reports went out asking for more information. Her fiance responded, Gale said, telling police she had "turned a trick" and then left their Salt Lake motel to get food at a nearby convenience store. She never returned.

Gale speculated it was Beslanowitch's tragic background that drove Todd Bonner — a detective assigned to the case in 1995 and now serving as Wasatch County sheriff — to doggedly pursue the brutal case, no matter what.

"Krystal was someone who didn't have a lot of family, didn't have a whole lot of people in this world who cared about her," Gale said. Of Bonner, he added, "I think he took it personally."

Bonner was set to testify in the case Thursday afternoon.

In December 1995, Simpson was driving for a shuttle service near the airport, Gale said. His work often took him near North Temple, where Beslanowitch was prostituting. While Simpson did have sex with the young woman, the defense attorney noted that's not what he is on trial for.

Simpson had been living with his parents in Sarasota, Florida, since 1997 when investigators linked his DNA to the scene of Beslanowitch's murder and arrested him.

In August 1987, Simpson pleaded guilty to murder for stabbing another man to death in a fight, according to court records. Simpson was sent to the Utah State Prison in November 1987 and was paroled in April 1995. Beslanowitch was found murdered eight months later.

The trial is expected to run through Oct. 28.

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com

Twitter: McKenzieRomero