Could Emotional Distress Reduce Charges in Scott Trial From Murder to Manslaughter?
You have probably heard terms like “emotional distress” or “extreme emotional duress” being used to describe certain murder cases. Human emotions are abstract, powerful, and often defy logic; yet in order to be considered as evidence for or against a defendant, they must somehow be evaluated by the courts. This is one of the most decisive factors in the case of Tracy A. Scott, who confessed to shooting his wife last spring. Scott’s trial is currently underway, though the key focus isn’t whether or not he committed the murder — it’s what state of mind he was in at the time. Depending on the answer to that question, Scott’s first degree felony murder charges could potentially be dropped to second degree felony manslaughter.
“The Real Issue is, What Crime is it? What Should it Be?”
On March 23, 2013, 911 dispatchers received a call from 48-year-old Tracy A. Scott, who lived with his 47-year-old wife Teresa and their two teenage sons at their home in Salem.
“My wife is shot,” Scott said. When the dispatcher asked who shot her, Scott replied simply, “I did.”
Officers were quick to arrive on the scene, arresting Scott and bringing him into police custody for further questioning.
“It wasn’t until [an officer] placed the handcuffs on him that there was a flood of emotion from Mr. Scott,” Utah County Attorney Lance Bastian stated in 4th District Court during opening statements on Tuesday, describing Scott’s 911 call as “flat” in tone.
But Salem PD arresting officer Austin Cobley paints a different picture of what he saw and heard on the 23rd of last year.
“Once [Scott] was taken into custody, he became very quiet and reserved,” Officer Cobley stated in court. But then he added, “At one point, he became very, very emotional. Very hysterical, body shaking. Very heavy crying, sobbing.”
Lowe’s account of anguished regret is consistent with Scott’s demeanor as he addressed the court on Wednesday, crying openly.
“I snapped. I just seen red,” he said. “We were two peas in a pod… We loved each other.”
But Scott’s marriage to Teresa was also tumultuous, checkered by frequent verbal and sometimes even physical altercations. In court, Scott’s 18-year-old son Thayne recalled his father punching his mother on one occasion. Younger brother Tyson, age 14, also testified that one a separate occasion Scott attempted to hit Teresa with his car.
Defense attorney Richard Gale says, “[Prosecutors] are going to be able to prove that Tracy killed his wife… The real issue is, what crime is it? What should it be?”
Emotional Distress in the Utah Murder Statutes
In Utah, first degree felony murder charges like those against Scott fall under 76-5-203 of the State Legislature. In referencing special mitigation (with mitigating factors reducing the severity of charges, just the opposite of aggravating factors), the statute points to 76-5-205.5, which states:
(1) Special mitigation exists when the actor causes the death of another… (b) under the influence of extreme emotional distress for which there is a reasonable explanation or excuse.
The question then becomes, what exactly do the courts consider to be a “reasonable explanation or excuse”? What isn’t a reasonable explanation or excuse? And which of these camps does Scott fall into?
“The reasonableness of an explanation or excuse under Subsection (1)(b),” says 76-5-205.5, “shall be determined from the viewpoint of a reasonable person under the then existing circumstances.”
In other words, a neutral third party must try to objectively weigh what would or wouldn’t have been “reasonable,” and indeed, this is the key debating point of Scott’s trial. But when it comes to a hard definition of “reasonableness,” the statute is silent.
However, 76-5-205.5 does provide a little more information about what is absolutely not up for consideration:
(3) Under Subsection (1)(b), emotional distress does not include: (a) a condition resulting from mental illness as defined in Section 76-2-305; or (b) distress that is substantially caused by the defendant’s own conduct.
Pending some unexpected development, the presence of medically established mental illness is not currently a factor in Scott’s trial. This may mean the debate over the most appropriate criminal classification could hinge on that single sentence of (3)(b): was Scott’s distress caused by his own conduct?
Jury deliberation continues, but one fact is clear: prosecutors and defense attorneys are sharply divided on this case.
“Is there any dispute that it was Mr. Scott who shot and killed his wife, Teresa? There’s no question. He’s told you himself that he was the one who murdered his wife,” Deputy Utah County Attorney David Sturgill told the jury during closing arguments.
“Cold-blood is someone who is not feeling any emotion. You heard that there was so much emotion felt in this,” Gale countered. “We’re not asking you to find him not guilty. What we’re asking you to do is, because he did it in an emotional state, it’s not quite as serious.”
If you or someone you love is facing criminal charges in Utah, you need an experienced Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer on your side. To set up a free and confidential legal consultation, call attorney Darwin Overson at (801) 758-2287, or contact us online today.