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State v. Prater

Supreme Court of Utah

March 7, 2017

State of Utah, Appellee,
v.
Anthony James Prater, Appellant.

         On Direct Appeal Third District, Salt Lake The Honorable Robin W. Reese No. 071909449

          Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Daniel W. Boyer, Asst. Solic. Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellee.

          Joel J. Kittrell, Kristina H. Ruedas, Salt Lake City, for appellant.

          JUSTICE PEARCE authored the opinion of the Court in which CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT, ASSOCIATE CHIEF JUSTICE LEE, JUSTICE DURHAM, and JUSTICE HIMONAS joined.

          OPINION

          PEARCE JUSTICE

         INTRODUCTION

         ¶1 A jury convicted defendant Anthony James Prater of aggravated murder and obstructing justice, both first-degree felonies. The jury also convicted Prater on five counts of discharging a firearm from a vehicle, a third-degree felony. At trial, three witnesses testified that Prater confessed to the crime, and one witness testified that he was there when Prater pulled the trigger. Forensic evidence supported the eye-witness's trial testimony. The district court also admitted a letter Prater had authored that suggested he had committed the murder. The district court sentenced Prater to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Prater appeals his convictions, arguing that much of the witness testimony was inherently improbable and therefore the State did not present evidence sufficient to permit a reasonable jury to find him guilty on any of the counts.

         ¶2 We affirm Prater's convictions.

         BACKGROUND[1]

         ¶3 In the early morning of November 27, 2007, T.W. drove Vincent Samora to a 7-Eleven. When she parked, T.W. noticed a silver Jeep in the parking lot.

         ¶4 Ryan Sheppard, the Jeep's owner, sat in the driver's seat. Sheppard was accompanied by his friend Prater. Sheppard recognized Samora, who was sitting in T.W.'s car, and pointed him out to Prater. Prater had been searching for Samora for months. In 2005, one of Prater's colleagues, Christopher Archuletta, shot Samora in the stomach. Samora later identified Archuletta as the shooter to police and testified at Archuletta's preliminary hearing. The State anticipated calling Samora to testify at Archuletta's upcoming trial. Prater had been "waiting to get [Samora]" because of Samora's testimony.

         ¶5 After a few minutes in the parking lot, T.W. drove to Samora's house. The Jeep followed them. After T.W. parked on Samora's driveway, someone in the Jeep fired shots into T.W.'s car. At least five bullets struck the car; one of the bullets killed Samora. T.W. reported she saw two men in the Jeep.

         ¶6 After the shooting, Sheppard and Prater went to Donna Quintana's house. Prater lived with Quintana, who was his girlfriend at the time. Sheppard and his girlfriend, Sherilyn Valdez, also stayed at Quintana's house. Sheppard, Quintana, and Valdez later testified that upon hearing a local news channel report Samora's death, Prater celebrated by laughing, jumping up and down, and commenting that Samora was "sleeping with the fishes." Prater instructed Quintana to remove his belongings from the Jeep and clean the vehicle.

         ¶7 Soon after hearing the news of Samora's death, Prater left for his cousin's house with Sheppard and Quintana because he became nervous that Quintana's neighborhood was getting too "hot." Prater sent Quintana back to her neighborhood with specific instructions to retrieve his gun and throw it into the Jordan River.

         I. Evidence Presented at Trial

         ¶8 The State charged Prater with aggravated murder, a first-degree felony, in violation of Utah Code section 76-5-202; obstructing justice, also a first-degree felony, in violation of Utah Code section 76-8-306; and discharging a firearm from a vehicle, near a highway, or in the direction of any person, building or vehicle, a third-degree felony, in violation of Utah Code section 76-10-508.

         A. Sheppard's Testimony

         ¶9 At trial, Sheppard identified Prater as the shooter. Sheppard testified that after he and Prater pulled out of the 7-Eleven parking lot, Prater said, "Follow [Samora], I will get out and smash him." Sheppard also testified that shortly after pulling up to Samora's house, Prater fired shots from the Jeep's window. Sheppard testified that Prater laughed when he saw the news that Samora had been killed. Sheppard recalled that Prater said "I knew I got him" and that Samora was "sleeping with the fishes."

         ¶10 Sheppard revealed that he had initially lied to police and denied any involvement in Samora's murder. Sheppard admitted that the State had offered him reduced charges if he agreed to testify against Prater. Sheppard also revealed a potential motive Sheppard would have had to harm Samora: Sheppard had previously dated a woman who-unbeknownst to Sheppard at the time-was married to Samora. Sheppard also testified that Samora had once thrown a retaliatory punch at him. Sheppard further testified that his current girlfriend, Valdez, had previously dated Samora.

         B. Quintana's Testimony

         ¶11 Quintana testified that when Prater learned from the news that Samora had been killed, Prater celebrated by jumping up and down and exclaiming that Samora was now "sleeping with the fishes." Quintana testified that she cleaned the Jeep and retrieved Prater's items at his request. Quintana also testified that Prater told her where to locate the gun used to kill Samora and that, upon his request; she threw it into the Jordan River.

         ¶12 Quintana admitted that she "denied knowing anything whatsoever" about the shooting in her first interview with police. Quintana also testified that, in a second interview with police, she did not "tell them the truth about the gun" and that only "half" of what she said was truthful. Quintana admitted that at both the second interview and the preliminary hearing, she had been dishonest when she said, and then testified, that she had discarded a "package" because she knew she had thrown a gun into the river. On cross-examination, Quintana admitted she also lied at the preliminary hearing when she told the court that Prater had told her he was not involved in the shooting. She also confessed that, at the preliminary hearing, she lied about being asked to clean the Jeep. Quintana explained that she lied at the preliminary hearing because she was "scared" after people on both Prater's and Samora's sides ...


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