Phoenix man pleads not guilty in murder of Lauren Heike

A former FBI agent breaks down the key pieces of direct and circumstantial evidence in the trial of Zion Teasley.
Published: May. 22, 2023 at 11:52 AM MST|Updated: May. 23, 2023 at 5:42 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) The man accused of killing Lauren Heike on a popular Phoenix hiking trail late last month pleaded not guilty. Zion William Teasley, 22, entered the plea Tuesday morning, a day after the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office announced he had been indicted by a grand jury.

“My heart goes out to the victim’s family and the pain they are experiencing losing their loved one in this manner,” County Attorney Rachel Mitchell said on Monday. “Our office will work diligently to seek justice for Lauren and her family.” The next day at Teasley’s arraignment hearing, his attorney entered a “not guilty” plea.

The body of the 29-year-old woman was found on the Reach 11 trail west of Scottsdale Road and Mayo Boulevard in north Phoenix on Saturday, April 29. Police believe she was killed the day before as she was walking along the trail in a seemingly random attack. According to court documents, Heike was chased before being stabbed 15 times. Teasley was arrested several days later in a nearby apartment complex after DNA and other evidence linked him to the crime. Detectives found his DNA on Heike’s shoes.

A Valley attorney says Teasley pleading not guilty is standard for an arraignment hearing, and it’s still early in the process. “In criminal cases there is an exchange of discovery. So the prosecutors are required to turn over all of their evidence to the defense. The defense is going to review all of that evidence before they start reviewing plea agreements,” said Russ Richelsoph.

Richelsoph, an attorney with the Davis Miles Law Firm, says since the murder is so recent, it’s likely police and crime labs are still in the process of finding more evidence against Teasley. So a not guilty plea is to be expected in this phase of the process. “It’s possible that there will be negotiations in the future, and this case could be resolved with a plea agreement and a guilty plea. That is never going to happen at the arraignment,” he explained.

This is essentially what happened in Brian Kohberger’s arraignment on Monday. Kohberger is accused of murdering four University of Idaho students in their sleep. “If you look at the Kohberger case, he stayed silent for the plea portion and the judge still entered a not guilty plea on his behalf,” Richelsoph said. “So really the purpose of the arraignment is not for the defendant to admit their guilt or deny their guilt; it’s really a procedural hearing.”

Even if a defendant wanted to admit guilt during an arraignment, Richelsoph says a judge wouldn’t allow it. “The court wants to make sure that the defendant’s constitutional rights are protected. They want to make sure that if the defendant is convicted of the crime, that conviction will hold up to any potential appeals. The court does not want there to be an error in the case,” he said.

What likely comes next is whether the state files a notice of intent to seek the death penalty. If that happens, it will be within the next few weeks. A trial date has been set for January.