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State v. MacNeill

Court of Appeals of Utah

March 16, 2017

State of Utah, Appellee,
Martin J. MacNeill, Appellant.

         Fourth District Court, Provo Department The Honorable Derek P. Pullan No. 121402323

          B. Kent Morgan and Jonathan T. Nish, Attorneys for Appellant

          Sean D. Reyes and Tera J. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee

          JUDGE J. FREDERIC VOROS JR. authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and STEPHEN L. ROTH concurred.

          J. FREDERIC VOROS JR., Judge.

         ¶1 Martin J. MacNeill was convicted of murdering his wife by overmedicating her then drowning her in a bathtub. At trial the prosecution presented testimony from five jailhouse informants, all of whom reported hearing MacNeill admit or imply that he had killed his wife. MacNeill's principal claim on appeal is that the prosecution team withheld information about promises of assistance the State's lead investigator, Jeff Robinson, had made to one of the jailhouse informants. After meticulous analysis, the trial court agreed with MacNeill that the prosecution had wrongly suppressed relevant impeachment evidence, but concluded that the evidence would not have altered the trial outcome. We affirm.


         The Crime

         ¶2 MacNeill lived with his wife, Michele, and their four minor daughters in Pleasant Grove, Utah. The MacNeills also had three adult children; two lived in Utah and one attended graduate school out of state. MacNeill practiced psychiatry, and Michele tended to their home and children.

         ¶3 MacNeill met Gypsy Gillian Willis online, and the two began an affair in November 2005. In March 2007 Michele expressed concern to her adult daughter, Alexis, who attended graduate school, that MacNeill might be having an affair. After reading through his telephone records, Michele discovered the identity of MacNeill's girlfriend. When she confronted MacNeill, he claimed she was being "ridiculous." Shortly after this confrontation, MacNeill surprised Michele with a facelift as a "present." He also indicated that he wanted to take her on a two-week cruise after her surgery.

         ¶4 Around the same time, during a "heartfelt, tearful lesson" at church, MacNeill announced that he had cancer and had "less than a year" to live. His health appeared to deteriorate-he began limping, walking with a cane, and wearing a surgical boot. Despite his claim to neighbors that he "had some procedures done [and] was having some complications, " MacNeill painted a somewhat different picture of his condition at work. He told one colleague that he had a "peripheral neuropathy" in his toe that "wouldn't get better, " another colleague that he had "cancer in his big toe, " and yet another colleague that he had a "neurological . . . problem similar to MS." But despite his scattered claims of various illnesses during that spring, MacNeill remodeled his basement on his own and appeared to have no difficulty carrying "giant [slabs] of sheet rock" down the stairs.

         ¶5 MacNeill scheduled a consultation with a plastic surgeon in March 2007 and attended the consultation with Michele. MacNeill was the "dominant personality" at the appointment and did "more of the talking" than Michele. Although Michele was nervous about having surgery and concerned about the associated risks, the recovery, and the downtime, she agreed to schedule comprehensive facial surgery for the following month.

         ¶6 MacNeill next scheduled an examination for Michele with a primary care physician to determine if it was safe for her to proceed with surgery. MacNeill was anxious to complete the evaluation so Michele could proceed with the surgery without delay. At the appointment, the three discussed Michele's high blood pressure. The primary care physician said that it would be ideal to control Michele's blood pressure before surgery and suggested that she postpone the operation. MacNeill expressed disappointment with this suggestion. Other than Michele's elevated blood pressure, the primary care physician determined that she was in "excellent health." An EKG revealed that Michele's heart was normal without any arrhythmias or evidence of heart disease.

         ¶7 Although the primary care physician recommended that Michele delay the procedure, Michele and MacNeill kept the appointment for the preoperative evaluation with the surgeon. Alexis came home from graduate school to attend the appointment with them. Before the appointment, Alexis saw MacNeill in his room writing down medications that he wanted the doctor to prescribe, using a "dusty" reference book that she hadn't seen him use in perhaps ten or fifteen years. On the way to the appointment, Michele said that she wanted to push the appointment back until summer so she could make sure her blood pressure would be under control. MacNeill became angry, raised his voice, told Michele she could not do that, and said, "If you don't have the surgery now, you're not getting it."

         ¶8 At the appointment, neither Michele nor MacNeill disclosed the primary care physician's recommendations, although MacNeill did mention that she had "some high blood pressure" and "had been prescribed some medication" for it. MacNeill directed the discussion about Michele's postoperative medication regimen. After performing a facelift, the surgeon typically prescribed a pain reliever (Lortab), an antibiotic (cephalexin), a sleeping medication (Ambien), an anti-inflammatory (Medral Dose Pack), and an eye ointment (erythromycin). Occasionally, he prescribed an anti-nausea medication (Phenergan) to patients that complained of nausea associated with anesthesia.

         ¶9 Consulting the list he brought with him, MacNeill requested four deviations from the surgeon's usual protocol. First, he requested an additional, stronger pain reliever, oxycodone, also known as Percocet. Second, he requested Lortab in liquid form. Third, he requested more than the typical amount of Phenergan, and he requested it in suppository form. Finally, he requested the anti-anxiety drug, Valium. MacNeill said that "he was just concerned that [Michele] wouldn't do well without having these other options available, " and that he wanted to have "all of the options available to [him], " even though Michele had told him that she didn't like to take a lot of medicine. The surgeon complied with MacNeill's requests and gave Michele instructions to take one pill at a time and "certainly" to avoid taking all of them together. Michele assured the surgeon she "was going to try and minimize the amount of medication that she took."

          ¶10 Two days later, MacNeill drove Michele and Alexis to the surgical facility for the operation. The surgery lasted all day, but the surgeon told Alexis that he was happy with the results. Michele was "in a little bit of pain and groggy" and "wanted to stay the night at the hospital." MacNeill returned to drive Michele and Alexis home. When Michele said she wanted to stay the night, he became angry and told Michele that they needed to go home. But he acquiesced when the surgeon explained that he prefers to keep his patients overnight. The surgeon released Michele the next morning.

         ¶11 On the day Michele returned home, Alexis acted as her caregiver, giving her medications, dressing her wounds, and helping her to the bathroom, because Michele was "effectively blind." Alexis kept a log of Michele's medications on a pad of paper and included the time she took each pill and the dose. Alexis also kept a log of Michele's vital signs and food intake in what she called her "little black book." She later combined the two logs and placed the pad of paper in a drawer next to Michele's bed. That evening MacNeill insisted that Alexis leave the room because he would be taking over Michele's care. Alexis left and slept in her youngest sister's room.

         ¶12 The next morning Alexis entered her mother's room and noticed that she "appeared to be very sedated." When Alexis tried to wake Michele, she stirred a bit but did not wake up. Alexis asked MacNeill what had happened, and he responded that he "must have given her too much medicine." When Alexis pressed further, he said he had given Michele Lortab, Valium, and Ambien, at which point Michele threw up. He then gave her Phenergan, Percocet, and more Lortab. Alexis told her father that he was "not to give her any more medicine, " because she (Alexis) was "taking over."

         ¶13 Later that evening Michele told Alexis that MacNeill "kept giving [her] medication" and "telling [her] to swallow, " and when she started to throw up he gave her more and more medication. Michele stated that she did not want MacNeill to give her any more medicine; she felt each different pill "so that if [MacNeill] tried to give her anything, she would know what he was giving her."

         ¶14 Alexis continued to care for her mother. Once Michele's bandages came off, her recovery accelerated. By April 10 Michele was able to walk around and care for herself. She took no Valium, Phenergan, or Ambien. Because Michele was sensitive to medications, she tried to take less than the prescribed dosage. Although Michele was tapering off her medications, MacNeill called the surgeon and asked him to refill Michele's prescriptions for Percocet and Phenergan, which he did at a follow-up appointment. Alexis attended the appointment with Michele, then returned to school.

         ¶15 The next day MacNeill took the couple's younger daughters to school. Before leaving for school, one of the girls entered Michele's room and found her mother sitting on the couch in front of her TV. The girl noticed "nothing odd about [Michele's] behavior." The two "had a perfectly . . . normal conversation" before the girl said goodbye and went to school. Alexis called at 8:45 a.m. and Michele said she was "doing great" and planned to pick the girls up from school. She did not sound confused, and her speech did not sound slurred. At 9:15 a.m., MacNeill called Alexis and left a voicemail urging her to call her mother and tell her to stay in bed. Alexis found this strange in light of her earlier phone conversation with her mother. Alexis called her mother, but Michele did not answer.

         ¶16 MacNeill was to receive an award at work that morning. Before the event MacNeill adamantly told the event coordinator that he needed his picture taken at the event. After receiving the award, he asked the photographer, "Did you get me in that picture? Make sure you got me in that picture." After the photographer assured MacNeill that he was in the picture, MacNeill pressed him again, saying, "Maybe you better take a second one and make sure you got me in that picture." After the event, MacNeill picked up the couple's youngest daughter from kindergarten at 11:30 a.m.

         ¶17 When MacNeill and his youngest daughter got home, she called, "Mom, I'm home." Michele didn't answer. The girl followed her father into the bathroom and found her mother "all the way" in the bathtub, lying in the water, still in her clothes. MacNeill told his daughter to run next door for help.

         ¶18 Meanwhile, MacNeill called 911. MacNeill gave the dispatcher a false address and hung up. MacNeill called again and said, "My wife has fallen in the bathtub . . . [s]he is unconscious. She's under water." MacNeill said he "couldn't lift her" so he let the water out of the tub. Although the dispatcher asked him to stay on the phone, MacNeill hung up again. The dispatcher called back, and MacNeill told her that he had "CPR in progress." Although the dispatcher requested that he stay on the phone, MacNeill again hung up. He then called a colleague at work and told him he was "doing a code on his wife." At this time, MacNeill's phone rang again-it was Alexis. He told her, "Your mother's in the tub and she's not breathing." Alexis immediately went to the airport to fly home.

         ¶19 The daughter returned to the bathroom with their neighbor. They found MacNeill "hunched over" Michele's face. Michele was face up, her head under the faucet, her legs and feet inside the bathtub. Two more neighbors came in and observed Michele's body in the same position: face up, with her head under the faucet, and her legs and feet inside the bathtub. They lifted Michele out of the tub and MacNeill began CPR. One of the neighbors performed chest compressions while MacNeill leaned over Michele's head to periodically administer rescue breaths. However, the neighbor did not observe MacNeill's mouth ever touching Michele's, nor did Michele's chest rise and fall when MacNeill administered the rescue breaths. Two paramedics arrived and took over CPR. When the paramedics began CPR, Michele's color instantly changed from bluish to a pink fleshy color. A gurgling sound came from her chest, and she expelled quite a lot of fluid from her mouth more than once-at least three to four cups the first time and a substantial amount the second time.

         ¶20 While the paramedics performed CPR, MacNeill told them that he had only been away from the home "for a short period of time, " during which Michele "overdosed on her pain medication, " slipped in the tub, and hit her head. MacNeill said he found Michele face down, "slumped over the tub" with her upper body inside the tub and her lower body out of the tub. MacNeill then began yelling and became increasingly loud and agitated-to the point that the officers and paramedics feared for their safety and removed him from the room. Shortly thereafter, the ambulance arrived, and MacNeill accompanied Michele to the hospital.

         ¶21 Michele was pronounced dead on arrival. The emergency-room doctor saw no injuries consistent with falling into the bathtub. Because the doctor could not determine the cause of death, he called the Medical Examiner's Office.

         ¶22 The MacNeills' adult son returned home that evening with the son's girlfriend. MacNeill asked the two to accompany him to the bathroom where MacNeill had found Michele that morning. The son's girlfriend noticed that the bathroom was clean, with no trace of blood, although MacNeill told her when he found Michele that day "there was blood everywhere." MacNeill asked the girlfriend to retrieve Michele's pills. She found various drugs, but some of the bottles had very few pills in them. MacNeill and his son counted the pills; MacNeill kept repeating, Michele "was not taking her pills." MacNeill became frustrated, said he "did not want to do this anymore, " and had his son's girlfriend flush the pills down the toilet.

         ¶23 When Alexis returned home that evening, she went straight to the bedroom to look for the medications. But the room had been "cleaned out." Items that had been there the day before-a hospital bed, stuffed animals, and blankets-had been removed. The bathroom rug was gone. While looking for her mother's medication around the house, Alexis found the bathroom rug, a pile of wet towels and clothing, and other of Michele's belongings in the garage.

         ¶24 Also gone was the "little black book" in which Alexis tracked her mother's medication intake. Alexis asked MacNeill where her mother's medication was; he told her, "I don't know. I think the police might have taken it." Alexis found the small pad of paper she had tracked Michele's medication on for the first few days after surgery in the drawer where she left it.

         ¶25 When Alexis asked MacNeill what happened, he took her into the bathroom to show her how he found Michele. MacNeill gave Alexis the same description he had given the paramedics: Michele was face down, "slumped over the tub" with her upper body inside the tub and her lower body outside the tub. He told Alexis that the bath was full and the water was off.

         ¶26 Rachel, the MacNeills' other adult daughter, arrived later that evening. MacNeill said that they "needed to get the autopsy done . . . right away" because "he was concerned that there would be a police investigation, " and he "didn't want . . . anyone to think he murdered [Michele]."

         ¶27 Although MacNeill had spent his day performing CPR on his wife, accompanying her to the hospital, cleaning up her personal belongings, tending to his family, and providing his neighbors with a tour of the renovations he completed in the home, he also spent time that day communicating with Gypsy. The two talked on the phone twice and texted each other thirty times.

         ¶28 Several days later, MacNeill spoke with the Medical Examiner, Dr. Maureen Frikke. He gave the same account he had given the emergency responders and his daughters: he found Michele slumped over the tub with her face "completely submerged" and her lower body hanging outside of the tub. Dr. Frikke determined that the manner of Michele's death was "natural, " and her cause of death was cardiovascular disease with hypertension and myocarditis.

         ¶29 Michele's funeral was held three days later. Before the service, MacNeill helped set up, running back and forth from the church to his car without a cane. As people started arriving, however, he began limping and using the cane. Gypsy attended the funeral, and the two texted throughout the service. After the funeral, a family friend approached MacNeill and offered to help care for his minor daughters. MacNeill told her that he had already hired a nanny.

         ¶30 MacNeill's adult daughters also offered to care for their younger siblings, but MacNeill asked Rachel to go with him to church to "pray about getting a nanny." When Rachel arrived, MacNeill did not want to go inside, but instead remained on a bench outside the church. Soon, a woman approached Rachel and MacNeill from the parking lot and said, "I'm so sorry for your loss. I was at the funeral." She told them that her name was Gillian and that she had attended nursing school. MacNeill asked for her phone number, and "Gillian"-who was actually Gypsy Gillian Willis-left. Nine days after Michele's death, MacNeill hired Gypsy as the family nanny and moved her into the MacNeill home. However, Gypsy never fulfilled the role of a nanny in the MacNeill household-the children were "left alone" and took care of themselves.

          ¶31 Gypsy and MacNeill travelled to Wyoming, where Gypsy introduced him to her family as her fiancé. By the end of the summer she held herself out to the public as Gillian MacNeill. The two applied for an identification card that listed the ...

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