Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Suicide Expert Insufficiently Reliable; Utah Reverses Murder Conviction

The Utah Supreme Court  reversed and remanded  the murder conviction of a defendant who claimed his wife committed suicide by pistol while they were arguing as he drove 

[Defendant] Lopez and Shannon, who were married at the time of Shannon’s death, both enjoyed shooting guns. Lopez used a gun throughout his career in the military and law enforcement. Shannon, who had been introduced to firearms at the age of nine, was a recreational shooter. Lopez and Shannon kept multiple guns in their home. Lopez usually carried a gun in his truck and another on his person.

On the night of Shannon’s death, Shannon picked Lopez up from work. Shannon had consumed methamphetamine in a quantity that the medical examiner described as “toxic.” Lopez also had methamphetamine in his system. During their commute, Lopez and Shannon argued about Shannon’s methamphetamine use and their financial problems. Lopez said during a police interview “that Shannon’s last words were . . . that she would take the kids and go to her father’s[.]” He “repeat[ed] . . . several times during [one of the] interview[s]” that “[s]he said she’d take the kids, she’s already packed, and she’ll leave . . . .” He further stated that he “told her . . . during the argument he was going to leave her also.” During his trial testimony, Lopez maintained that he said he would leave her, but denied hearing Shannon say that she would leave him.

Lopez testified that as he was making a left hand turn, he heard the sound of breaking glass. Lopez turned to see that Shannon was “slumped forward.” Lopez tried to turn the truck around to take Shannon to a hospital, but crashed into another car and then into a fence. Witnesses saw Lopez jump out of the truck and lie on the ground while saying “sorry mommy” or “sorry mama” repeatedly.

Expert evidence was improperly admitted

To prove that Shannon did not shoot herself, the State offered expert testimony from Dr. Craig Bryan, a clinical psychologist. Dr. Bryan specializes in the treatment of suicide patients using the Fluid Vulnerability Theory of Suicide (FVTS). FVTS is the “most commonly used theory and approach to developing treatment and understanding suicide risks.” The theory is based on “scientific evidence gained from clinical care of suicide patients as well as multidisciplinary scientific efforts internationally.”

There was also error in admission of a prior bad act threat to an ex-wife

We conclude that Dr. Bryan’s expert testimony was inadmissible because the State did not demonstrate that it met a threshold of reliability as Utah Rule of Evidence 702 requires. And because Dr. Bryan offered significant testimony on the key dispute in a case where much of the other evidence was ambiguous, this error was harmful. Furthermore, the district court abused its discretion in admitting evidence of Lopez’s prior acts for the purpose of showing identity. This error was also harmful.

(Mike Frisch)


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