Jury: Biela guilty of rape, kidnap, murder
Associated Press Writer
RENO – Jurors convicted a Nevada man Thursday of raping and strangling a 19-year-old college coed during a string of attacks that had the city of Reno on edge two years ago and now will decide whether to sentence him to death.
A Washoe County District Court jury found James Biela guilty of all five counts tied to the murder of Brianna Denison and sexual assault of two other young women.
Biela showed little emotion, standing with his hands crossed in front of his waist as the verdict was read.
“It’s a good verdict, well deserved,” District Attorney Dick Gammick said. “Cases like this always strengthen my faith and belief in the jury system.”
The same jury that took about six hours to reach a verdict now must decide whether the 28-year-old pipe fitter from Sparks should be sentenced to death.
The sexual assaults began in the fall of 2007 around the University of Nevada, Reno campus just north of the downtown casino district and culminated in Denison’s strangulation in January 2008.
Detectives said it was the work of a serial rapist who stalked petite women and had a fetish for thong underwear.
Fueled by thousands of tips and calls to an anonymous hot line, a nine-month-long manhunt led them to Biela, who was arrested in November 2008 after his ex-girlfriend let police take DNA from their son.
Biela’s public defenders called one witness during the trial, a DNA expert who argued there was less certainty in the DNA match than prosecutors contended, partly because the samples were gone when he went to test them to verify the county crime lab’s conclusions.
Biela, an ex-Marine who studied martial arts, initially told District Judge Robert Perry earlier this week that he wanted to testify on his own behalf but then changed his mind on the advice of his lawyers.
Denison, a sophomore at Santa Barbara City College, had been home visiting friends when she was kidnapped while sleeping on a friend’s couch near the Reno campus on Jan. 20, 2008.
Her body clad in only in socks was found in a field 26 days later beneath a discarded Christmas tree, along with two pair of thong underwear.
The two other assault victims said their assailant took their underwear.
After the verdicts were read, Denison’s mother, Bridgette Denison, said the family would have no comment until sentencing was completed. Biela’s lawyers also declined to comment.
Deputy District Attorney Elliott Sattler began his closing arguments late Wednesday with a reference to the comment a co-worker of Biela’s said he made the day Denison’s body was found: “The (expletive) probably had it coming.”
Sattler said that comment offered “chilling insight into the mind of a killer.”
Jay Slocum, one of Biela’s public defenders, said prosecutors were glossing over significant differences in the three attacks that would suggest the crimes were not committed by the same person.
Jurors began hearing later Thursday from witnesses during the penalty phase of the trial.
Deputy District Attorney Chris Hicks said prosecutors would be seeking the death penalty. “This has been an emotional trial. It’s about to get more emotional,” Hicks said.
Public Defender James Leslie said Biela’s lawyers will ask that the jury spare his life and send him to prison for life without the possibility of parole.
Leslie said they will not argue about the crimes, but that Biela is a hard worker and loving father who supported his family and deserves to live.
He said they will present information about his violent childhood, in which his father regularly beat his mother.
“He witnessed things no child should have to witness,” Leslie said.