A 23-year-old man who murdered two sisters in January 2012 — stabbing one of them more than 130 times — was sentenced Tuesday to 100 years in Montana State Prison.
In May, Andrew Scott Denning pleaded no contest to two counts of deliberate homicide for killing 22-year-old Rose Edwards and 21-year-old Daisy Edwards on Jan. 27, 2012.
Denning, who has a documented history of mental illness, has said in court records that he took Ambien, a prescription sleep aid, prior to the killings and doesn’t have “a recollection of what transpired” at the apartment where the sisters were found two days after their deaths.
Police found the sisters dead inside a unit at the Ponderosa Acres apartment complex, 1301 Industrial Ave., on the morning of Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012.
Police quickly identified Denning as the suspect and arrested him less than 24 hours after finding the Edwards sisters’ bodies.
At Denning’s sentencing hearing Tuesday, District Judge Mary Jane McCalla Knisely described the killings as “ritualistic” and “systematic.”
“You will be confined and absent from society with a sentence that possibly — and hopefully — will be for the rest of your life,” she told him.
Defense counsel sought a sentence of 100 years prison with 20 years suspended.
The judge followed a sentencing recommendation made by County Attorney Scott Twito, who said in court records that a forensic psychologist, Dr. William Stratford, determined Denning didn’t suffer from a mental condition significant enough to “negate his intent.”
“(Denning) knew what he was doing, and he understood right from wrong,” Twito told the judge. "What’s very important for you to consider, judge, is there is not a mental illness here which should be a mitigating factor."
Billings Police detective Keith Buxbaum testified Tuesday about the investigation into the deaths, revealing new details in the case, including that Daisy was stabbed 34 times in the face and more than 130 times total.
“I’ve never seen that many stabbings in a case,” said Buxbaum, who estimated he has investigated more than 100 homicides.
He said she had an amount of Ambien in her system that may have rendered her unconscious at the time of the killing.
Rose Edwards, he said, was beaten, gagged, strangled and likely died from a stab wound that pierced her throat.
The object used in the murders was never found, nor was the key to the apartment unit the sisters were found in, the detective said.
Prior to the sentence being announced, Denning made a brief statement, offering his condolences to the victims’ family and apologizing for what, he said, happened “in the heat of the moment.”
“By my selfish acts, I have extinguished the flame of a gift both priceless and precious: human life,” he said.
Family members make statements
Several family members of Rose and Daisy Edwards testified, including their mother, Marie Edwards.
She said that when she found out about their deaths, it felt as if two pieces of her heart had been ripped from her body, a pain she still feels.
“They were full of love and life and laughter,” she said. “They were beautiful, they were kind and they were talented. Rose was a writer, and Daisy was an artist. They are loved, and they are deeply missed.”
She also disputed Denning’s claim that the sisters approached him the night of the killings to buy Ambien.
“In my opinion, you did it just because you had the lust to kill,” Edwards said.
One of Denning’s two attorneys, Assistant Public Defender Tom Bartleson, read two statements to the court, one by a family friend of Denning’s and one by Denning’s mother.
She expressed great sorrow for the Edwards family, but also insisted that her son’s mental health problems and the Ambien in his system were factors in the killings.
“I would implore you to take into consideration that my son Andrew is mentally ill and has battled with this illness pretty much his entire life,” she was quoted as saying. “There is no doubt in my heart that if Andrew had been of sound mind on Jan. 27 that the tragedy would not have taken place.”
Denning’s mental health
According to sentencing memorandum by Assistant Public Defender Clark Mathews, Denning was diagnosed with depression at age 12 and subsequently with bipolar disorder and a seizure disorder.
He also stated that on Jan. 23, 2012, Denning admitted himself to the Billings Clinic Psychiatric Center for having suicidal thoughts.
“Psychosis was noted” during Denning’s stay, according to Mathews. Denning was prescribed Ambien, Zyprexa and Depakote and discharged on Jan. 25, 2012 — two days before the killings.
Mathews also mentioned Dr. Stratford’s evaluation of Denning and noted that Denning did not take the Zyprexa or Depakote, but abused the Ambien.
Stratford concluded, “it appears that the Ambien in concert with his already tenuously integrated mental status contributed to his conduct described in the charging documents,” court records say.
On Tuesday, Mathews went on to describe Denning as an artistic man of faith who loves his family, which includes a young daughter.
“It’s difficult, your honor, to reconcile the devastation that Drew caused with the kid that I’ve come to know over the last two years,” Mathews said. “I don’t know if it’s a psychiatric illness combined with his use of Ambien, or what happened. But it happened, so he’s got to pay the price.”
Denning’s sentence; avoiding a trial
In pleading no contest to the murders, Denning claimed that he can’t remember all of the events that happened at the time of the killings, but acknowledged that prosecutors would be able to convict him if the case went to trial, something prosecutors wanted to avoid.
According to Twito, “the level of detail and evidence that would be revealed during the trial would further devastate the Edwards family.”
“I want to … give credit to Mr. Denning for one thing, and that is for not putting the Edwards family through a full trial,” Twito said.
Denning's no contest plea, which functions the same as a guilty plea or jury conviction in terms of sentencing, was the primary reason for the state’s sentencing recommendation.
Denning’s plea agreement included the state’s recommendation that he be given parallel sentences of 100 years in prison each for counts of deliberate homicide. The agreement also called for the dismissal of weapons enhancements for each charge, which could have tacked on an additional 20 years.
Had Knisely not accepted the plea agreement or issued a sentence of more than 100 years, Denning would have been allowed to withdraw his no contest pleas, which could have forced the matter to proceed to trial.
“Your honor ... 100 years is appropriate for what Mr. Denning did,” Twito concluded Tuesday. “Please give the Edwards family justice and recognize their courage and follow the state’s recommendation.”