SALT LAKE CITY — For the second time in less than six years, a jury has found Deon Lomax Clopten guilty of murder and sentenced him to up to life in prison for a gang-sparked shooting on the streets of Salt Lake City.
Clopten, 35, was also found guilty of a second charge of possession of a dangerous weapon by a restriction person, a second-degree felony.
The longtime gang member whose trouble with the law stretches back to the mid-90s in Ogden had to be removed from the courtroom after he swore at the judge and said he didn't want to sit through the sentencing.
"I think the right outcome was achieved and we're grateful for the jury," said prosecutor Fred Burmester after Clopten was given five to life for the murder and up to 15 years for the weapons conviction.
A jury trial in 2006 led to the murder conviction of Clopten in the Dec. 1, 2002, shooting of Tony Fuailemaa. The Utah Supreme Court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial on the grounds that defense attorneys should have been allowed to use an expert on eyewitness testimony.
After six and a half hours of deliberation Friday, Clopten was again found guilty following a four-day retrial before 3rd District Judge Randall Skanchy. This time, experts on eyewitness testimony did testify, as did a number of eyewitnesses, police officers and a medical examiner.
In closing arguments, no one denied that Fuailemaa was shot in the head and neck outside Club X-Scape, 115 S. West Temple, after a hip-hop concert. The question centered on who fired the gun.
"The issue in this case is identity," Burmester said. "Not, was there a murder."
Burmester reminded the jury of the testimony of three separate eyewitnesses who all identified Clopten as the shooter, including Fuailemaa's then-fiancé, Shannon Pantoja. Pantoja had seen Clopten earlier in the evening and was told he was at the club.
"She (told police), 'I know who did it, it was Deon Clopten,'" Burmester told the jury. "She picked him out 100 percent sure. She's maintained that position numerous times."
But defense attorney Jeremy Delicino pointed out what he said are inconsistencies and other issues with the testimonies of the various eyewitnesses and suggested that the shooter was, instead, Clopten's friend Freddie Lee White.
"The devil is in the details," Delicino said. "The small issues are the big issues in this case."
He said one of the eyewitnesses testified in order to stay out of prison and told the story he thought police wanted him to tell. He also pointed to discrepancies in the suspect descriptions given by Pantoja and another woman who was present the night of the shooting.
"Honest people make honest mistakes, and honest people made honest mistakes in this case," Delicino said.
Fuailemaa and Pantoja left the concert early to avoid traffic. A group of men, including White and Clopten, were outside the club. One witness said Fuailemaa and Clopten had exchanged words in the club.
Fuailemaa had his back to the men when suddenly a man dressed all in red came out holding a gun. He held it to the back of Tony's head and fired three rounds, prosecutors said.
Four undercover police officers were also in the club that night and responded, saw Fuailemaa on the ground and ran after the gunman, who eventually got into a white car and led them on a chase reaching speeds of 100 mph before being stopped.
Pantoja said a man "dressed all in red" was responsible. Delicino pointed out that both White and Clopten were wearing red. White was in a hooded sweatshirt and Clopten was in a full sweat suit.
Clopten has maintained that while he may have been present that night, he didn't shoot anyone. At his original trial, he also said White pulled the trigger, court documents state. White also apparently confessed at one point, but the eyewitnesses implicated Clopten in the crime.
Fuailemaa's brother, Silipa, said his brother was a happy person, who was like a big brother to everyone he met. He said it has been difficult for him and his family to relive his brother's death, especially when they thought the case was settled.
"It's something that has brought back a lot of heartache," he said, adding that the family is "fighting through" the pain.
He called the sentencing bittersweet and while the convictions brought justice, they did not bring back his brother.
"He's not here today, he's not here tomorrow," he said, adding that his family takes comfort in their belief that families are forever.
He said Clopten acted like a coward in refusing to face Fuailemaa's family.
"We just wanted everyone to know the truth," he said. "He was convicted before and convicted again. This was the truth."