During an emotional hearing Tuesday (Aug. 13) that brought many in the courtroom to tears, William Patrick Smith pleaded no contest to second-degree murder in the beating death and subsequent burning of an intellectually disabled man at the abandoned convent building in 2012.
In a plea deal, the Eighth Judicial District Attorney's Office agreed to drop the original charges of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, arson, conspiracy to commit arson and escape from jail.
The 23-year-old instead entered a plea of no contest to murder in the second-degree for the killing of Christian Payton.
Smith received the maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. He faced life plus 30 years in prison on the charges originally filed against him.
In a tearful statement to the court before sentencing Tuesday, the victim's brother said he felt the deal was lenient but offered the defendant an opportunity to redeem himself.
"By allowing you to plea here today, the representatives of our society are showing you the mercy you did not show my brother," Jeremy Payton said.
Smith and 28-year-old Deborah Jaramillo were indicted in November for beating Payton to death, throwing him down a flight of stairs and cutting his face during a fight.
The trio had gathered with other friends to eat pizza and drink rum at the abandoned convent building. After killing Payton, investigators alleged a third suspect only identified by the name “Cherokee” aided the two in burning the body. The blaze engulfed the building and more than two weeks passed before Payton’s remains were located in the debris.
Jaramillo remains in the Taos County Adult Detention Center ahead of a hearing to determine her mental competency. Meanwhile, investigators continue to search for the third suspect.
“We are still diligently working to identify the other people involved,” town of Taos Police Lt. Jerry Hogrefe told The Taos News. “We are still anxious to see this case go forward.”
During his statement to the court, the victim's brother thanked the police, firefighters and rescue teams that sifted through the rubble of the convent building to bring closure to the family.
"It was only their dedication, hard work and a little luck that brought to light the horrific events of that evening," Jeremy Payton said.
Acknowledging the 39-year-old victim’s struggles with paranoid schizophrenia and homelessness, he added Christian Payton was not a perfect citizen but did not deserve the beating he received that evening.
Following her brother Jeremy’s statement, Joann Payton reflected on the sentence awaiting her younger sibling's killer.
"It is difficult for me to even wrap my head around what justice would be for something like this," the Flagstaff resident said, turning to the defendant who nodded at times as he held back tears. "You are being given a gift. We are forgiving you and giving you a chance to redeem yourself."
In a statement that moved District Court Judge Sarah Backus to tears, the victim's father similarly called on Smith to seize the opportunity for redemption that his plea deal offered.
Smith himself delivered brief, halting and emotional remarks before receiving his sentence.
"I do not deserve forgiveness," the defendant said, looking to his victim's three family members in the gallery. "I'm really sorry for your brother and if I could bring him back, I would."
Prosecuting attorney Emilio Chávez called on Backus to issue the maximum 15 year sentence, acknowledging that even then Smith would be free by the time he reached his mid-30s.
"He will be a young man and have a chance for that redemption that Mr. Payton spoke of," Chávez said.
Smith's lawyer, Eric Morrow, suggested to the judge that "shaving a few years off" his sentence would make Smith a better person in prison.
The defense attorney's request was rejected, however, as Judge Backus sentenced Smith to 15 years in prison to be followed by a period of parole.
"This is one of the most heinous crimes I have seen since I have seen on the bench," Backus said before addressing Smith directly. "Go forth and remember the remorse you felt today."