Judge Allows Inconclusive DNA Evidence in Salt Lake City Murder Trial
On Tuesday, January 6, Third District Judge James Blanch ruled that prosecutors would be permitted to use DNA evidence in the case of former pediatrician John Brickman Wall (51), who pleaded not guilty to murder charges and aggravated burglary charges in the 2011 death of his ex-wife Uta von Schwedler. However, in an interesting twist, the evidence will not be used to determine whether Wall is guilty — but whether other suspects may be innocent.
Judge Permits DNA Evidence, But Cautions Prosecutors Against Misuse
On September 27, 2011, 49-year-old biologist Uta von Schwedler was discovered lifeless in her bathtub. Yet the cause of von Schwedler’s death was not drowning — it was a fatal level of Xanax in her bloodstream. No records indicated a prescription for Xanax, and areas of von Schwedler’s body were marked by unexplained cuts. Police described her death as “suspicious,” with the medical examiner unsure of whether to deem the death a suicide or a homicide.
The DNA evidence in question is now more than three years old: tissue taken from beneath von Schwedler’s fingernails at the scene of the crime. Defense attorney G. Fred Metos disagreed with Judge Blanch’s ruling in favor of using the evidence, stating, “They’re asking a jury to draw a conclusion that is inappropriate given the test results.”
The controversy over the evidence is that it’s inconclusive, a trace amount which assistant District Attorney Matthew Janzen described as being “meaningless to the defendant.”
Judge Blanch, however, is aware of the evidence’s shortcomings, and has stated that the DNA is meant not to indicate Wall’s guilt, but to rule out nine other men who are also suspects in von Schwedler’s death. Accordingly, Blanch warned prosecutors not to misuse the evidence as proof of Wall’s involvement, stating, “It should not come in any manner that suggests it means something.”
Despite Judge Blanch’s precautionary statements regarding the role of the evidence, Metos still disagrees with the reasoning behind the decision. In Metos’ opinion, the DNA could still be used to level guilt at his client because it rules out the additional suspects. “They want to create an inference that is not justified under the evidence,” Metos says. “I think that’s misleading, it’s confusing to the jury and it’s unfairly prejudicial.”
Defense Raises Doubts About Character Evidence Against Wall
It isn’t just the DNA from beneath von Schwedler’s fingernails which Metos is concerned with.
He has also raised concerns regarding Judge Blanch’s decision to allow the prosecution to cite, as evidence of the defendant’s motives, a snippet from a conversation between Wall and friend Teri Bailess in August of 2010, when both were going through difficult custody battles. As Bailess recounted, “We were just joking around and he said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if they [Wall and von Schwedler] both just got hit by a bus?’”
“It doesn’t show anything regarding the homicide,” Metos argues, “or his presence at the scene of the homicide.” Metos says that not only is that particular piece of conversation irrelevant to the matter at hand, having transpired more than a year before von Schwedler’s death — it could also prejudice the jury against his client.
“I thought it was joking… Putting things in perspective, now it makes me sick,” says Bailess, seeming to confirm Metos’ worries about the conclusions the jury might jump to.
However, Judge Blanch has again noted the potential issues which could arise, acknowledging that “bad acts” evidence is prohibited. Pursuant to Fed. R. Evid. 404(a)(1), “Evidence of a person’s character or character trait is not admissible to prove that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character or trait.” In the 2000 case of State v. Nelson-Waggoner, Judge Christiansen cited Utah R. Evid. 404(b), writing, “In determining whether bad acts evidence is admissible, the trial court must first determine whether the bad acts evidence is being offered for a proper, noncharacter purpose, such as one of those specifically listed in rule 404(b).”
Wall’s four-week trial is scheduled to begin February 17, 2015 in Third District Court, with an additional hearing meant to resolve outstanding pre-trial issues scheduled for February 4. If the debate regarding the controversial use of evidence in this case continues, the February 4 hearing may prove vital to the course of Wall’s trial.
If you or someone you love is facing murder charges or theft charges in the Salt Lake area, Salt Lake City homicide attorney Darwin Overson at (801) 758-2287 to start exploring some of your options in a free and completely confidential legal consultation.