While the sentencing has not been set for Ash Fork resident Lillian Hester, who was found guilty on Tuesday of murdering her nephew, County Attorney William Ring said his office has already been preparing.
After a four-week trial in the Coconino County Superior Court, a jury found Hester guilty of first-degree murder and child abuse in the 2015 death of Jason Hester.
“We will make a recommendation for an appropriate sentence for a heinous crime such as this,” Ring said.
Because the victim is dead, Victim/Witness Services for Coconino County will represent Jason and give its opinion to the county attorney’s office on a fitting sentence. Ring said it’s common for this department to represent victims, both children and adults, when they are not willing or able to represent themselves.
Ring said he thinks the defense acted honorably and did the best job they could with the amount of evidence in support of conviction. But when it came to Deputy County Attorney Stacy Krueger's performance, Ring said he was extremely impressed.
“I’ve been an attorney for the last 30 years,” he said. “And Stacy Krueger’s last 15 minutes of her closing argument is the best lawyering I’ve ever seen in 30 years.”
Ring said Krueger was affected by the case on a personal level, which made her work more effective.
“Her thrust was to make it clear to the jury that the defendant knew what she was doing was wrong and that it would lead to Jason’s death,” Ring said.
After closing arguments, it took the jury just two hours to unanimously find Hester guilty of the two charges.
“I think two hours is the right amount of time for the volume of compelling evidence presented to the jury,” Ring said.
He added the four-week trial took about the time his office expected it to take.
“The attorneys had numerous witnesses who laid the foundation for the factual evidence the attorneys obtained,” he said.
Evidence included photos of Hester’s home at the time of Jason’s death — including photos of the outward lock on Jason’s door she used to confine him in his room — interviews with Hester, and Jason’s autopsy photos, which showed the 6-year-old with bruising all over his body, scratches and scabs on his face and a broken arm.
The jury was also shown a text conversation between Hester and another person in which they discussed shipping Jason to Oregon in an animal crate because Hester didn’t want him anymore. The date of the conversation was June 20, 2015, two days prior to Jason's death.
There were 27 witnesses who testified over a period of 13 days, taking up a little more than two weeks of the trial. Witnesses included Hester’s family members, members of the Coconino Sheriff’s Office who responded to and investigated Jason’s death, and medical experts.
Also testifying were Hester’s boyfriend, Jason Conlee; her mother, Lenda Hester; and Lenda’s boyfriend, Kimmy Wilson.
In June 2016, Hester, Conlee, Lenda and Wilson, who all took care of Jason, were indicted by a grand jury following a year-long Coconino County Sheriff’s office investigation into Jason’s death. Hester was indicted on one count of first-degree murder and one count of child abuse. Conlee, Lenda and Wilson were each indicted on one count of negligent homicide and one count of child abuse.
On March 16, Conlee entered into a plea agreement, in which he pleaded guilty to child abuse only.
The plea agreement document states that the Class 6 non-dangerous, non-repetitive felony carries a minimum prison sentence of six months, a maximum sentence of one and a half years and an aggravated sentence of two years. The maximum fine that Conlee could receive is $150,000 plus an 83 percent surcharge. The document also states that probation is available. His sentencing is currently scheduled for Aug. 24 at 4 p.m., though it has been continued in past weeks.
While the county attorney’s office was waiting for Hester’s trial to conclude before separately trying Lenda and Wilson, dates have not yet been set.
Ring said his office is prepared to try the co-defendants with the same vigor as it tried Hester, adding that it was satisfying to see justice done in the form of the jury finding Hester guilty on both counts.
“The process of justice is deliberate, and that can sometimes make it look slow,” he said. “Our lawyers knew they had a mountain to climb, and they got down and did the work. And the result is that justice prevailed for Jason and for the county.”