Emotional testimony marks start of death penalty trial


ELKO – Emotionally charged testimony marked the first day of the trial of a Winnemucca man accused of killing a 16-year-old girl while working at a fast food restaurant in Elko nearly two years ago year.

Justin Mullis, 24, is charged with first degree murder, including attempted robbery with the use of a deadly weapon, and concealment or destruction of evidence of the commission of a felony, a felony.

He was arrested on November 2, 2020, a day after Kylee Leniz was shot and killed as she neared the end of her evening shift at the Idaho Street McDonald’s.

A search of the area by law enforcement then revealed a black sports bag, similar to that carried by the suspect, behind the Best Western Elko Inn, with clothing resembling that of the man in the video, including a baseball style cap, black jacket and camo bandana.

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A still image of a man from hallway surveillance video was released by police as a potential suspect wearing a gray top.

The trial began Wednesday morning in Department 3 of the Elko District Court with Judge Mason Simon presiding, after two days of jury selection.

In opening arguments, Elko County District Attorney Tyler Ingram told jurors that Mullis was later picked up from the Gold Dust Casino by Rebecca Whiteside. Mullis spent the night at his Spring Creek residence, where he threw a pair of white shoes in the trash.

The next morning, Whiteside saw the surveillance photo and brought Mullis to the Elko Police Department where he was questioned by law enforcement and arrested.

During his interview with police, Mullis “at first denied any involvement in Kylee’s death, but that has changed,” Ingram said.

Mullis told investigators he had a gun, firing it earlier in the day near the Northeast Nevada Regional Hospital. That night, as he walked from what was then the parking lot of the Red Lion Hotel and Casino and across the street, he said he saw no cars or heard any noise, telling the police “I never lost my mind.” Then everything turned gray.

What happened next came to him in a dream, Mullis said, recalling seeing himself at the McDonald’s drive-thru, seeing a girl fall, seeing himself and then driving away.

“Justin also admitted to going to the Best Western. He admitted to changing clothes, putting the bag over the fence behind the Best Western,” Ingram continued.

“He said he was sorry. He didn’t remember doing it. It was all grey. He didn’t want to. He had no intention of hurting anyone. He said that ended up killing an innocent child.

Mullis told police that before the incident “he was angry. He was tired of being hurt and tired of being called a liar. He said everything drove him so crazy.

As he walked down the passageway, Mullis said he started hearing his birth mother’s voice and was “burning, angry.” He said that looking out the first window, he saw a reflection staring at him, then he saw a girl falling. When the police asked him what had caused him to fall, he started “talking about gray things”.

“Justin then said he killed an innocent young girl who was just trying to make money, trying to work, trying to achieve her dreams,” Ingram said. When asked by law enforcement how he killed her, “Justin said he was supposed to kill his mother. He saw her reflection.”

He later said he gave the gun to a man in Elko. Leniz’s family offered a $500 reward for the murder weapon, a 9mm Hi-Point pistol with distracting “silver grips.”

Ingram told jurors Whiteside called police in May 2021 to report a gun was found in a shed on his property.

Testing by the Washoe County Crime Lab Weapons and Firearms Specialist on this gun determined that it was “the gun that fired the bullet” and that the casing found on the floor below the drive-in window -in came from the same gun, Ingram said.

Washoe County Regional Medical Examiner Assistant Medical Examiner Dr. Julie Schrader said Leniz was shot in the back, with the bullet passing through his vertebrae, spinal cord, lungs and heart, stopping in his left breast.

Ingram said jurors would also hear the results of DNA analysis conducted at Washoe County Crime Lab on Mullis’s shoes and the clothing, camouflage bandana and toothbrush found in the black bag which were all connected to Mullis. .

Near the end of the trial, jurors would also see and hear another conversation Mullis had with someone where he explained what happened that night. “This time, no mention of a reflection, no mention of his mum, no mention of the replay, no mention of a dream.”

Ingram asked jurors to write the end of the story that began nearly two years ago, “that you convict Justin Mullis of first degree murder.”

Elko County public defender Matthew Pennell told jurors the story hinged on ‘a single moment in time, Justin’s state of mind at that specific moment and mental health issues. which tormented him all his life up to this moment.”

“What was going on in Justin’s mind and what caused his mind to work the way it did,” he said. Pennell said Mullis was “born with leg irons”.

Describing Mullis’ childhood, Pennell said he and his siblings were abused by his drug-addicted mother. Calling her his “birth donor”, he grew up in and out of the foster care system.

“He was chained from birth,” Pennell said. “It’s not just this story, but the science that tells you what kind of story like this might have about a person’s ability to function, think, and function.”

Pennell said Mullis underwent tests and a brain scan which shows “a consistency of what happened to Justin leading to traumatic brain injury and explaining some of his actions.”

Mullis has been diagnosed with mental illness, psychiatric disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder with complex trauma, major depressive disorder with psychotic features, generalized anxiety disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and borderline disorder. with antisocial characteristics.

“These all affect someone’s ability to regulate and control their emotions and thinking,” Pennell said.

A neuropsychologist and a forensic psychologist would testify to the results and effects of trauma on the brain. “You will also hear that the results of this brain scan are consistent with traumatic brain injury, underdevelopment and other functioning issues.

Additionally, Pennell said jurors will learn more about NFL players who suffer brain damage that accumulates over their careers and creates similar problems.

Evidence would also show that at the time of the incident, Mullis was operating under an impulsive “burning thought”. “You will also hear that approximately 25% of Justin’s brain is abnormal and limited in function. Specifically those regions that control emotional reactions, a person’s ability to process information, the speed at which they can do it, and executive functions, which are the voice in their head, their consciousness.

Jurors would also hear about Mullis’ attempted suicide, Pennell said.

Considering people’s views on justice, Pennell said in this story, “responsibility is justice.”

The purpose of the defense attorney’s presentation of evidence is not designed to disrespect Leniz’s memory or his family, Pennell said, but rather to show that the state has not done enough. evidence to convict Mullis of first degree murder.

“It’s really up to you to sit objectively out of this and see that the final chapter you’re going to write doesn’t have the evidence to support a first degree murder conviction. The evidence won’t show that.

After opening statements, Ingram called five witnesses Wednesday morning before lunch. Among them was Leniz’s mother, Shannon Sanders, who told the court that neither she nor her daughter knew Mullis.

Shift manager Jayme Smith, who was in the lobby talking to Leniz, testified that he saw a man on their monitor come up. He remembered Leniz heading to the window to take his order.

McDonald’s regional manager Ana Martinez became emotional as she reviewed files from the security footage in the courtroom. She told the court that 14 cameras were inside and outside the restaurant. She provided law enforcement with clips from multiple cameras to identify the suspect.

Jurors and Kylee Leniz’s family watched camera footage at the Idaho Street McDonald’s that showed a man in a dark-colored jacket and light-colored pants walking toward the drive-thru window from a parking lot in the casino across the street.

Footage also showed the moment Leniz opened the window to speak to the man, then quickly fled out of view of the camera.

Photographic evidence obtained by the Elko Police Department showed a single bullet casing lying on the floor just below the drive-thru window inside the restaurant.

The courtroom later played body camera footage of an Elko police officer who arrived at the scene after other officers arrived. He spotted Smith pressing his jacket to Leniz’s wound to stop the bleeding.

The officer wiped his eyes as he testified to what he saw entering the fast food restaurant.

Members of Leniz’s family cried when the images from the two sources were shown in the courtroom.

The trial resumes Thursday.

Elna M. Lemons