Sparks man gets death penalty in coed’s slaying

RENO — A jury sentenced a Nevada man to death Wednesday for raping and killing a college coed after sexually assaulting two others in a string of attacks that had Reno on edge for most of 2008.

The same jury that convicted James Biela, 28, last week deliberated for about nine hours before reaching a unanimous verdict to execute him by lethal injection for the 2008 rape and strangulation of Brianna Denison, 19.

Her family members burst into tears and Biela stared straight ahead as the sentence was read aloud in Washoe County District Court. The sentence will be automatically appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court.

“My heart goes out to all the innocent people who have been touched by this tragedy,” said the judge, Robert Perry. He set sentencing for July 30 on other charges stemming from the Denison slaying and the sexual assault of two other young women.

As Biela was handcuffed and led away by a court marshal, he turned to his mother and apologized.

“I’m sorry. I (expletive) up,” he said.

The pipe fitter and ex-Marine from Sparks apologized Tuesday, saying he regretted that he would not be able to see his son grow up. His public defenders urged the seven women and five men of the jury to consider that he had no previous criminal record and had been abused growing up in poverty in the Chicago area.

But Denison’s family and Washoe County prosecutors called death the only appropriate penalty for her slaying in January 2008 during a series of assaults that began months before on the edge of the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno.

Denison’s mother, Bridgette Denison, handed small blue bags of mementoes to prosecutors and police with buttons bearing her daughter’s photo and the words “Bring Bri Justice.”

Similar buttons were distributed during the search for Denison’s body in 2008.

“It sickens me to know my poor baby girl was with you the last moments of her life,” Bridgette Denison told Biela on Tuesday. “I know that James Biela is asking for mercy. I do not believe he deserves any mercy.”

Deputy District Attorney Elliott Sattler said he agreed with public defenders who said the death penalty should be reserved for the “worst of the worst.”

But he said Biela fit that category because he strangled Denison with thong underwear.

“He could have used his bare hands,” Sattler said. “He chose not to do that. He killed her in a sick and sadistic way that was directly tied into what he had done earlier.”

Detectives called the slaying the work of a serial rapist who stalked petite women and had a fetish for thongs. The two other assault victims said their assailant took their panties during attacks at or near UNR in the fall of 2007.

Denison, a sophomore at California’s Santa Barbara City College, was home visiting friends during winter break when she was abducted Jan. 20, 2008, while sleeping on a friend’s couch near the UNR campus.

Her body, clad only in socks, was found in a field 26 days later, beneath a discarded Christmas tree along with two pairs of women’s thong underwear. Police determined one undergarment had been stolen from Denison’s friend and was used to strangle Denison.

Denison’s family and friends tied blue ribbons around fence posts and trees, and police reported receiving thousands of tips and calls to an anonymous hot line. Biela was arrested in November 2008 when he went to pick his son up at preschool.

Police said he was identified through DNA compared with samples that Biela’s ex-girlfriend let police obtain from their son.

Lawyers for both sides put the death penalty itself on trial during closing arguments Tuesday.

Public defender Maizie Pusich argued that sentencing Biela to life in prison without parole was enough to punish Biela and protect the public.

“The way to prevent this sort of tragedy in the future is not to kill Mr. Biela,” she said. “Death does not bring peace or renewal to anyone.”

The last time a Washoe County jury issued a death sentence was for Tamir Hamilton, now 32. He was convicted in 2008 of raping and killing Holly Quick, 16, of Sparks, in September 2006.

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