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Judge: Bradford killings 'evil, depraved'

Cristian Nunez, shown here during his December 2016 trial, was sentenced Monday, Feb. 13, to life in prison without parole. (File photo)

HUDSON — Cristian D. Nunez accepted a double-life sentence without the possibility of parole on Monday the same way he responded to a clean-sweep of guilty verdicts handed down last year by a St. Croix County jury: placid and emotionless.

The reaction nagged at relatives of the two people prosecutors say he killed on Sept. 2, 2015, at a New Richmond home.

"It made the decision more of an empty victory — that the person affected didn't seem to care," said Dain Bradford, the older brother of Courtney Bradford.

Nunez's silence, the brother said, "proves even more that he did it."

Nunez was convicted in December of killing 30-year-old Courtney Bradford and her daughter, Jasmine, 10. The jury also handed down guilty verdicts against Nunez for arson, identity theft and auto theft.

He was accused of setting the Bradfords' home on fire after the murders and then driving Courtney's SUV to Iowa, where he hopped a flight that eventually took him to El Paso, Texas. He was arrested there after authorities from New Richmond, St. Croix County and other agencies successfully tracked Nunez's electronic footprint to the Mexican border, which they say he was poised to cross.

But in spite of Nunez's absence of reaction in court, the sentence represented justice for the family and law enforcement who cracked the case and saw it through to its conclusion.

"It was appropriate and we're satisfied," New Richmond Police Lt. Veronica Koehler said. "It will never bring Courtney and Jasmine back, but it's just another piece of closure for the family."

Rachel Bradford, Courtney's youngest sister, agreed.

"We are safe," she said.

She, along with the father of Courtney Bradford's surviving son, delivered victim-impact statements at the hearing. Rachel Bradford described to the courtroom how she'll never again see the sister known for bringing comic relief to tense situations and a total commitment to her children.

"We will miss her being a role model," Rachel Bradford said.

And while Courtney died after 30 years, Jasmine "missed an entire lifetime," Rachel said.

She figured the mom and daughter had at least a collective 100 years remaining in their lives and said Nunez should "spend an equal number of years in prison without parole."

'Absolutely no remorse'

St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Scott Needham, who presided over the trial and issued the sentence, called the case "one of the most horrific crimes that I have encountered in my time on the bench."

Needham said he factored in the brutality of the murders, Nunez's apparent lack of remorse in the case and the need to protect the public in denying the possibility of parole.

"You've shown absolutely no remorse, no sense of repentance, no sense of 'what I did was wrong,'" the judge told Nunez, clad in an orange jail jumpsuit.

Defense attorney Brian Smestad declined to comment after sentencing, saying the case will be appealed.

Needham's sentence followed the recommendation by St. Croix County District Attorney Michael Nieskes, who said it's "only fair he serve the rest of his life" away from society.

Nieskes laid out prosecution's theory that Courtney Bradford died because Nunez had listened to secret recordings he'd made of her conversations with another man. He stabbed her nearly 30 times in the neck, the DA explained, before going to the basement of the Hallewood Boulevard home, where Jasmine slept.

Nunez stabbed the child to death to cover up her mother's death, Nieskes said. That way, he said, the child wasn't able to alert authorities if she'd discovered her mother's mortal wounds.

Nieskes said the cover-up attempt led to Nunez setting the house on fire in the early hours of Sept. 3.

"I believe he set the fire to destroy evidence," Nieskes said. "I believe he killed Jasmine to help get away."

Nieskes' theory also revealed new information to the public about Nunez's background. He said Nunez held dual citizenship in the United States and Mexico after being born in Denver and growing up in Mexico before returning to America as an adult.

Smestad, Nunez's lead defense attorney, argued the two life sentences Nieskes sought serve more as a rhetorical device than a solution.

"We can come up with these ridiculous numbers because we want to make a point," Smestad said, adding that he understands the satisfaction that may come with a heavy-handed sentence. "But that satisfaction isn't going to last forever."

He recommended a 30-year prison sentence, saying the Bradford case represented Nunez's first brush with the law and that it's possible his client could be reformed at that point.

The possibility for Nunez to have his case reviewed after 30 years "provides a glimmer of hope" and incentive to better himself in prison, Smestad said.

Nieskes countered that an absence of criminal history is offset by a pattern of Nunez using people for his needs.

"That's what he used Courtney Bradford for," the DA said.

Smestad also raised the question of racism in a pre-sentence investigation (PSI) report. He said in his career as an attorney, he's never seen a PSI with "such a strong example of racism."

The report, Smestad said, cast a broad portrayal of Hispanic males.

"Frankly, I'm shocked," he said.

Needham didn't address Smestad's claims of racism in the PSI, nor did he address descriptions in the report of a sexual assault on Jasmine Bradford — those allegations never led to charges — but did not hold back in assessing the case.

He told Nunez that his behavior in the case was "irrational, senseless, unexplained."

"I hope you accept that it was horrific," Needham said. "It was evil and it was depraved."

Needham also challenged Smestad's argument that Nunez should receive a glimmer of hope.

"It rings hollow," he said. "It rings, quite honestly, as disingenuous."

The judge said he's been searching since the beginning of the case to find a reason why the Bradfords were slain. He urged the Bradfords' relatives to unburden themselves of a similar train of thought.

"Abandon the thought that you're going to find answers because there are no answers," Needham said.

He then turned to the defendant.

"There's only one person who knows that answer and is you, Mr. Nunez," the judge said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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