ST. GEORGE — The driver who struck and killed a pedestrian on Bluff Street in November 2023 appeared for sentencing on Thursday in a case marred by evidentiary issues that ultimately played a role in the outcome.

Booking photo of Brianna Leigh Waters, of Washington City, who was sentenced on a second-degree felony count of negligently operation a vehicle resulting in death, booking photo taken in Washington County, Utah, Nov. 3, 2023 | Photo courtesy of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, St. George News

Brianna Leigh Waters, 28 of Washington City, appeared in court Thursday for sentencing facing second-degree felony negligently operating a vehicle resulting in death and third-degree felony possession of a controlled substance, along with two traffic offenses. The DUI charge was dismissed under the terms of the plea agreement.

During the hearing, the defendant was ordered to serve one year in jail, while the prison term of 1-15 years was suspended. Upon her release, the judge ordered that Waters be placed on “zero tolerance” probation with Adult Probation and Parole for the next four years. She was also ordered to pay a $2,000 fine and participate in the jail’s substance abuse program.

The case was originally filed following an auto-pedestrian collision reported on the evening of Nov. 3, 2023, at the intersection of Bluff Street and 500 North, where Matthew Jones of St. George was found unresponsive and succumbed to his injuries at the scene.

Waters was traveling north on Bluff Street and continued through the intersection of 500 North and collided with the pedestrian. She was arrested that night following an accident reconstruction investigation conducted shortly after the collision.

In this file photo, emergency crews work the scene of a fatal pedestrian-vehicle incident at the intersection of 500 North and Bluff Street, Nov. 3, 2023 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Waters was formally charged the following day with the second-degree felony count of negligently operating a vehicle resulting in death, as well as a third-degree felony count of DUI, a charge that was later dropped prior to her guilty plea.

Case plagued by motions to suppress 

The case was bound over for trial in December, but evidentiary issues came to light which prevented the state from taking the case to trial. Specifically, the defense filed several motions to suppress evidence, and this came up at the sentencing hearing.

In one such motion, the defense alleged that officers had no probable cause to arrest the defendant based upon the field sobriety test, which the defendant did not fail, the defense asserted, if the information in the probable cause statement filed shortly after the arrest was correct.

When Waters was transported to the St. George Police Department, she was told she was under arrest for DUI as soon as they arrived, which Schatz said was a clear indication that a decision to arrest her was made at the scene, even though officers had no clear indication she had committed any crime.

That also meant the driver was in custody the moment she was removed from the scene and driven to police headquarters since she was under the belief she was not free to leave. Consequently, any statements made between those two points should have been suppressed, since the driver was not Mirandized until she was already in one of the interview rooms at the police station.

Another issue involved the blood sample taken from the driver following the crash and was sent to the crime lab without being properly labeled. The inadequate labeling resulted in a break in the chain of custody that is required under the law.

Additionally, in another motion the defense alleged that investigators lied to the defendant about the potential blood test results, leading the driver to believe they were acting in her best interests. It was alleged officers were using “relentless tactics” to get the driver to confess to something they already believed to be true.

Prosecutor, family lament ‘imperfect justice’

During the hearing, the victim’s sister Victoria Jones, read her impact statement. She said that shortly after the crash, the family was told they had the best investigators assigned to the case but later learned that “because of a police error, my family and I do not receive justice today. I’m very angry.”

She said she felt helpless because death is permanent, something she feels in the pit of her stomach “every single day.”

Defendant Brianna Leigh Waters, 28, of Washington City, appears before District Judge Keith C. Barnes for sentencing following the fatal auto-pedestrian crash in November 2023, St. George, Utah, Feb. 22, 2024 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

Jones also said the family did not believe the driver had any remorse for what happened, adding that was how they felt “for the moment,” and the family will heal regardless of the outcome of the hearing.

Prosecutor Jerry Jaeger said, “There is no perfect justice in this situation.” There was no way to change what has been done, “and yes, there was a mistake” that was made in the investigation which changed the direction of the case. This resulted in the state having to proceed not with a trial but with a plea deal.

“But I do believe that this is some form of justice — at least an imperfect form of justice,” Jaeger said.

Jaeger asked the judge to place Waters on “zero tolerance” probation once she is released. If she fails to comply with all of the terms of that probation, “Then I will be back here demanding that she go to prison,” the prosecutor said. 

District Judge Keith C. Barnes, who presided over the hearing, addressed the Jones family, saying, “I don’t know how your family is dealing with all that your family has had to deal with over these past few months,” referring to losing two family members in two separate fatal auto-pedestrian crashes two days apart in November. 

The judge was referring to the crash that killed Mardelle Parkin, 37, Victoria Jones’s sister, who was killed in essentially the same location on Nov. 1.  The driver in that incident cooperated with law enforcement and was not charged or cited in connection with the crash.

Barnes said that historically speaking and specific to this case when investigative mistakes are made, it is often those mistakes that bring about change.

He said this is where the victim’s family members become the heroes, by being the catalyst for changes that could prevent other families from experiencing the grief the Jones family is feeling. He also said he would not have accepted the plea agreement if he didn’t believe the assessment of the case was accurate.

Schatz, said there was nothing he could say that would bring the victim back, adding the crash was a tragic situation and one that his client feels “true remorse” over. So much so, he said, Waters is committed to moving forward in such a way as to be a productive member of society and to deal with the issues that got her in the situation in the first place.

And frankly, she’s going forward with her life as best she can and in honor of the deceased,” he said. 

Waters said she’s extremely sorry, adding there were no words she could say to express her regret over the pain she has caused the family.  

“I do you make a promise to everyone here in this court that I will move forward with being a better citizen and more productive in changing my life around so nothing ever has to happen again,” Waters said. 

At the close of the sentencing hearing, Waters returned to jail, where she has remained since her arrest on Nov. 6, 2023, to finish serving out her sentence.

This report is based on statements from court records, police or other responders and may not contain the full scope of findings. Persons arrested or charged are presumed innocent until found guilty in a court of law or as otherwise decided by a trier-of-fact. 

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