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Rigby first-degree murder case moves to district court

Crime Watch

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RIBGY — Twenty-one year old Jesse Gentle will face a first-degree murder charge in district court following a two-day preliminary hearing on Thursday and Friday.

During the hearing, Magistrate Judge Robert Crowley listened to arguments presented by the prosecution and defense regarding the killing of 72-year-old Merel Jay Sorenson in November 2020.

Following the hearing, Crowley determined there was sufficient evidence to go to trial and the case was bound over to district court. The date for a jury trial has not been set.

The testimony during Thursday’s hearing focused on witness Tonya Stevenson, Gentle’s aunt and a close friend of the victim. She was in her Rigby residence with Gentle and Sorenson when the killing occurring. During her testimony, Stevenson asserted it appeared that Sorenson’s body had been sodomized when she found him, which was brand new information to the defense.

A number of law enforcement officers also testified to the condition of the body when they arrived at the home.

RELATED: Witness surprises defense team with new information during murder preliminary hearing

Attourneys Day 2

On Friday, the focus of the hearing was on expert witness Dr. Garth Warren, the forensic pathologist for Ada County, who performed the autopsy on Sorenson.

Warren described the cause of death being two gunshots to the head. One involving the right sidewall of the nose, going from right to left and slightly downward and most likely shot from several inches away. That shot might not have been fatal, he said.

The other wound was from the back of the skull, back to front, angled slightly upwards, and from contact range, it was surely fatal.

During his autopsy, Warren also mentioned that contrary to Stevenson’s testimony, there was no sign of sexual trauma to Sorenson, or even signs of sexual activity, though he clarified that regular sexual activity may not always present with signs.

In his opinion, he added that the gunshot wounds are most likely not from a shotgun. Stevenson’s testimony included seeing Gentle handle her shotgun shortly before she heard gunshots. She then testified to taking the shotgun away from Gentle before finding Sorenson’s body.

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She also testified she had seen Gentle earlier in the weekend with a .22 caliber revolver. He had pointed it at his own head, and said that he didn’t know who to use it on. The revolver was later found on the bed that Gentle used after detectives found Sorenson’s body dragged to the bathroom.

Warren added that traces of methamphetamines’ were found in the body, but it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how and when they were taken, as there were no signs of injection marks.

Prosecution Day 2

During closing arguments, the prosecution iterated there was sufficient probable cause showing a crime had occurred and that Gentle had killed Sorensen to move the case to district court. In order to make this a case of first-degree murder, the prosecution must also prove that this was a willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing.

“Premeditation means to consider beforehand whether to kill or not to kill, and then to make the decision to kill,” Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Dyal said.

Dyal went on to suggest that the fact that evidence suggests the two shots came from the single-action revolver shows the murder wasn’t a quick rash decision.

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“Single action means you have to pull back the hammer each time you pull the trigger,” he added. “This is not a semi-automatic weapon where a slip of the finger can pull the trigger twice.”

For the defense, attorney James Archibald claimed there was not enough proof needed to take the case to trial.

“We don’t believe there is proof of premeditation. We don’t believe there is proof of malice,” he said. “The state has presented no evidence of a confession. The state has presented no evidence of any reason for there to be malice between Mr. Gentle and Mr. Sorenson.”

Archibald continued to talk about how the night was a ‘drug fueled’ event, showing how meth was found in Sorenson’s body along with Gentle’s. He also questioned the validity of Stevenson’s testimony, given that she admitted that a hair follicle test might show the presence of meth in her system as well.

“I don’t think anyone in this courtroom believes she was reading the bible, minding her own business, smoking pot,” Archibald said.

At the end of the hearing, Judge Crowley announced his decision to move the case to district court. Bail will continue as previously set at $750,000.