The Justice Files: COVID-19 outbreak delays double murder case

Top Stories

PROVO Utah (ABC4 Utah) – Justice delayed one more time in the case involving a double murder.

For more than two years, the families of Riley Powell and Brelynne “Breezy” Otteson have attended numerous court hearings only to be told the case will be continued.

“I started to tear up when the judge was granting the motion,” said Amanda Hunt, Otteson’s aunt.  “We are all frustrated.”

Jerrod Baum is facing capital murder charges for the 2018 double murder. He’s accused of repeatedly stabbing Powell and Otteson and then dumping their bodies inside a mine shaft near Eureka. The charges were filed after Baum’s former girlfriend, Morgan Henderson, who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, told investigators she witnessed the murders.

Since the case was filed in 2018, the defense has filed motions to have the judge removed.  There was also an attempt to sanction the Utah County attorney for public statements on social media.  Prosecutors also filed a motion to remove the public defender.  There is currently a motion to determine if the death penalty applies in this case. And Thursday’s hearing was to determine if the state’s key witness, Morgan Henderson, Baum’s former girlfriend should be excluded from trial.

But instead of legal maneuvers causing delays, it was an outbreak of COVID-19 at the Utah state prison.

“The record should reflect that Mr. Baum is here for this hearing,” said Judge Derek Pullan.

Baum has been in prison following a 2019 drug conviction. Thursday, he appeared wearing a mask but was prevented from joining defense attorneys at their table.

“He’s been in an environment where there’s been an outbreak to my understanding of 200 people coming down with COVID-19.  I don’t know who where he’s been who he has had contact with.”

On Tuesday, the executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections announced there was an explosion of COVID-19 cases at the prison.  It jumped from two cases in early September to 196 active cases. Mike Haddon said the outbreak was isolated in a separate wing of the prison.

“Once we got our initial positive case we knew it was going to go up and it was going to go up pretty quickly,” said Haddon on social media.  “We’ve had the department of health come in and do testing.”

But prosecutors still wanted the hearing to take place.  They said it wasn’t fair for their witnesses who took personal days off or traveled long distances to be told to go home.  And they noted the safety measures in the courtroom.

“I see there are gloves on the stand next to me, hand sanitizer on all of the easels,” said deputy Utah County attorney Carl Hollan.  “All of the persons in the courtroom are wearing a mask.”

He said the Utah County jail does rapid testing, and it could be done within a couple of hours.  But Baum’s defense objected to that claiming the tests are not reliable.
Judge Pullan then asked Baum, who sat alone but with prison guards nearby.

“The tests are anytime we leave, anytime, even if we leave the building the, the temperature (is taken),” he said.  “As far as I know, they haven’t done an actual testing.”

With that Judge Pullan postponed the hearing claiming Baum’s due process would be jeopardized if he could not participate or confer with his attorneys.

A spokesperson from UDOC issued a statement regarding Jerrod Baum’s appearance in court.  It reads: “Jerrod Baum is housed in our Uinta Facility, specifically in a maximum-security area that has had no positive cases, and does not have a COVID-19 observation, quarantine or isolation designation.  Based on CDC recommendations and our coordination with local health officials, he would not be tested prior to going to a court hearing.  He would; however, have his temperature checked and be asked the standard COVID-19 screening questions.”

Click here to download the ABC4 Utah News app for the first alerts on your phone. Sign up for the ABC4 Utah breaking news and daily newsletters.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Utah VP Debate

More Utah Debate