CARSON CITY, — The death sentence for James Biela, convicted of the 2008 rape and murder of a college student in Reno, was unanimously upheld Thursday by Nevada Supreme Court justices who said the crimes he committed were “of the class ... that warrants the imposition of death.”
In a 15-page ruling, justices rejected arguments by Biela’s attorneys that his conviction should be overturned because the jury’s decision was motivated by passion generated by extensive news coverage and an outpouring of public support for 19-year-old Brianna Denison and her family.
Denison, a sophomore at Santa Barbara City College in California, was abducted in January 2008 while sleeping on a friend’s couch at a residence across the street from the University of Nevada, Reno.
Investigators said she was smothered with a pillow until she choked, then later raped and strangled with the strap of her best friend’s thong underwear.
Denison’s body, clothed only in socks, was found a month later under a discarded Christmas tree in a weedy field in a south Reno business district. Two pairs of women’s thong underwear were tucked beneath one of her legs.
Biela, 31, was arrested that November following a tip from his former girlfriend who reported that he had an obsession with thong panties. He also was charged with sexually assaulting two other women on and around the UNR campus in the months before Denison’s disappearance. Police called the crimes the act of a serial rapist.
Biela, a former Marine and pipefitter, was tried for all three attacks at once in 2010. He was convicted and sentenced to die for the murder of Denison and given four life prison terms for the assaults on the other women.
Justices rejected Biela’s arguments on appeal that the trials should have been separate and that Washoe District Judge Robert Perry, now deceased, erred by allowing jurors to submit questions.
The court further denied his claims that the conviction should be reversed because one of the rape victims identified him only after Biela was named a suspect in the Denison murder. Justices said the woman identified him at trial as “the man who haunts my dreams,” and said such testimony alone is sufficient to support his conviction.
Finally, the opinion written by Chief Justice Michael Cherry said there was nothing in the record to support Biela’s arguments that the jury’s verdict was the result of passion or prejudice.
“To the contrary, the jury’s findings of 23 mitigating circumstances and the 99 questions it asked during trial provide ample evidence that it was attentive, thoughtful and did not rush to judgment in the determination of either guilty or penalty,” the ruling said.