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State v. Lambdin

Supreme Court of Utah

August 11, 2017

State of Utah, Respondent,
Dennis Wayne Lambdin, Petitioner.

         On Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals

         Third District, Salt Lake The Honorable Vernice S. Trease No. 091906736

          Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Karen A. Klucznik, Asst. Solic. Gen., Salt Lake City, for respondent

          McCaye Christianson, Alexandra S. McCallum, Salt Lake City, for petitioner

          Justice Durham authored the opinion of the Court, in which Associate Chief Justice Lee and Judge Connors joined.

          Chief Justice Durrant authored a dissenting opinion in which Justice Himonas joined.

          Having recused himself, Justice Pearce does not participate herein; District Court Judge David Connors sat.




         ¶1 Dennis Lambdin was married for approximately nine years before brutally killing his wife. While he admitted to the killing, he sought to reduce the conviction from murder to manslaughter by establishing special mitigation through extreme emotional distress. At trial the jury convicted him of murder, rejecting his arguments for special mitigation. Mr. Lambdin appealed his conviction of murder to the court of appeals, arguing that the district court's jury instructions concerning extreme emotional distress were in error. The court of appeals affirmed the conviction. We granted certiorari to review the court of appeals' decision, and affirm.


         ¶2 Mr. Lambdin married the victim in 2000. Throughout the marriage, the victim had a drinking and gambling problem, which caused distress to Mr. Lambdin. In June 2009, she asked Mr. Lambdin for a divorce. Later, Mr. Lambdin found romantic messages on the victim's cell phone from another man, and around the same time, the victim informed Mr. Lambdin that she was pregnant with another man's child. Mr. Lambdin told a co-worker of his wife's infidelity and his distress, and the co-worker requested that the police conduct a welfare check at Mr. Lambdin's home because she was concerned for his safety. The police visited Mr. Lambdin and found that he had a very calm demeanor despite having just discussed the pregnancy with the victim. He told police that the affair "doesn't really matter. It's over. I'm past it now. It is time to move on."

         ¶3 The couple continued to discuss divorce off and on for roughly two months, with Mr. Lambdin trying to convince the victim to stay in the marriage. On the evening of August 16, 2009, Mr. Lambdin and the victim again argued over whether they should divorce. After the argument, Mr. Lambdin made the victim coffee, and she then left their home to work a night shift at her job.

         ¶4 Mr. Lambdin stayed up most of the night. Around midnight, Mr. Lambdin wrote two letters. The first letter, written in the past tense, explained that he had killed the victim and committed suicide. This letter also gave explanations for why he planned to do it, including the statement that, "she deserves what she got and I won't be around to suffer anymore." The second letter, apparently written to a neighbor, said "I couldn't take this shit any longer. I had to do this and I'm glad I did. It serves her right for all she has done to me."

         ¶5 Mr. Lambdin printed a copy of these two letters and left them on his computer desk. About seven hours after the letters were written, the victim came home from work. Mr. Lambdin met her in the kitchen and began discussing divorce again. He said, "do we really have to go through all of this stuff" and "lose everything that we got." The victim responded by telling him "you're crazy, " and that he needed to move out. At this point, Mr. Lambdin told police that he "just lost it."[1] He explained to the police that, "[a]ll I wanted was some resolve with her, to get back what I've given her for the last 9½ years. The love and the affection. And she just talked to me like I was a stranger. A piece of shit. Insults me."

         ¶6 Mr. Lambdin punched the victim "about four or five times, " and then threw her to the floor. Then he grabbed the biggest kitchen knife he could find and began stabbing her. After he stabbed her the first time, the victim screamed, "okay!" But Mr. Lambdin responded "it's too late, " and you "get what you deserve." He continued to stab the victim at least fifteen times in the back and neck while she was screaming. After repeatedly stabbing the victim, he noticed that she was still moving. Mr. Lambdin told police that he "didn't want to stab her anymore" and that he "didn't want her to suffer." So, Mr. Lambdin grabbed a "big decorated ball" and "smashed her in the back of the head with it three times, " until she stopped moving. The victim died in the attack.

         ¶7 According to Mr. Lambdin's statement to the police, he went out onto his deck and smoked a cigarette after killing the victim. He then went to Home Depot to buy some rope with which to hang himself. He came home and tied the rope to an attic beam and began drinking heavily "to get the balls to" commit suicide. While drinking, he messaged a friend telling her what he had done. The friend called the police, who arrived at the scene shortly thereafter.

         ¶8 During the attack, Mr. Lambdin had cut his hand on the kitchen knife, and EMTs transported him to a hospital for treatment. On the way to the hospital, Mr. Lambdin informed the EMTs that "he had stabbed his wife" and "that when she continued to move he grabbed a glass globe and bashed her head." He told the EMTs multiple times that "the bitch got what she deserved." Mr. Lambdin continued to make similar comments to hospital staff. He made the comment that "he couldn't take it anymore, " and that he had killed his wife. When asked how he had cut his hand, he "just laughed about it and said, 'I killed that woman. I stabbed her. She got what she deserved.'"

         ¶9 The police officer who responded to the incident testified that, immediately after he arrived on the scene, during the ambulance ride, and at the hospital, Mr. Lambdin displayed a wide spectrum of emotions, from laughing about the attack and seeming very excited to becoming very angry. The officer testified that Mr. Lambdin seemed to have an, "oh, my gosh . . . what did I just do, " attitude, but that he did not cry.

         ¶10 The State charged Mr. Lambdin with murder. Mr. Lambdin sought to reduce the level of his offense to manslaughter by proving special mitigation by extreme emotional distress. The district court proposed its own jury instructions; Mr. Lambdin objected to the instructions concerning special mitigation, but the court overruled his objections. The jury convicted Mr. Lambdin of murder, unanimously finding that he had failed to establish special mitigation by extreme emotional distress. Mr. Lambdin appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed the district court's jury instructions. We granted certiorari to review the court of appeals.


         ¶11 "On certiorari, we review the decision of the court of appeals for correctness, without deference to its conclusions of law." State v. Smith, 2014 UT 33, ¶ 9, 344 P.3d 573 (citation omitted). Also, "we review a court's ruling on a proposed jury instruction for correctness." State v. Maestas, 2012 UT 46, ¶ 148, 299 P.3d 892.


         ¶12 Utah Code section 76-5-205.5 governs special mitigation in criminal homicide cases. Special mitigation allows a defendant charged with criminal homicide to reduce the level of the offense. Utah Code § 76-5-205.5(5). Extreme emotional distress is one category of special mitigation. Id. § 76-5-205.5(1)(b). If a jury "finds the elements [of murder] are proven beyond a reasonable doubt" by the State, and the jury unanimously finds the elements of extreme emotional distress are "established by a preponderance of the evidence" by the defendant, the jury must reduce the verdict from murder to manslaughter. Id. § 76-5-205.5(5)(a).

         ¶13 Extreme emotional distress is established by proving 1) the defendant "cause[d] the death of another, " 2) "under the influence of extreme emotional distress, " 3) "for which there is a reasonable explanation or excuse." Id. § 76-5-205.5(1). The statute provides further guidance on the second and third elements. Under the second element, extreme emotional distress does not include "a condition resulting from mental illness as defined in Section 76-2-305" or "distress that is substantially caused by the defendant's own conduct." Id. § 76-5-205.5(3). Under the third element, the "reasonableness of an explanation or excuse" for the extreme emotional distress "shall be determined from the viewpoint of a reasonable person under the then existing circumstances." Id. § 76-5-205.5(4). There is no further statutory definition or explanation of the term "extreme emotional distress."

         ¶14 Mr. Lambdin argues that our definition of extreme emotional distress in State v. Bishop, 753 P.2d 439 (Utah 1988), overruled on other grounds by State v. Menzies, 889 P.2d 393 (Utah 1994), is dicta and that "it was error to turn that dictum into affirmative statements of the law" that were used to provide the language for the jury instructions in this case. He next argues that this court's precedent, and the court of appeals in this case, was incorrect in holding that special mitigation by extreme emotional distress requires a jury to look at "the reasonableness of the [defendant's] loss of [self-]control." State v. Lambdin, 2015 UT App 176, ¶ 12, 356 P.3d 165. Finally, he argues that the jury instructions in this case were incorrect and prejudiced his verdict. We address each of these arguments.


         ¶15 In State v. Bishop, this court defined "extreme emotional disturbance" in connection with the statutory defense to the crime of murder.[2] 753 P.2d 439, 467-72 (Utah 1988), overruled on other grounds by State v. Menzies, 889 P.2d 393 (Utah 1994). In that case, we stated that a person suffers from extreme emotional distress:

(1) when he has no mental illness as defined in section 76-2-305 (insanity or diminished capacity); and
(2) when he is exposed to extremely unusual and overwhelming stress; and
(3) when the average reasonable person under that stress would have an extreme emotional reaction to it, as a result of which he would experience a loss of self-control and that person's reason would be overborne by intense feelings, such as passion, anger, distress, grief, excessive agitation, or other similar emotions.

Id. at 471.

         ¶16 Mr. Lambdin argues that Utah Code section 76-5-205.5 "sets forth all the elements jurors need to know to understand and apply the law, " and therefore "there is no need for a court to define [extreme emotional distress] beyond" what is listed in the statute. He argues that we should abandon our definition of extreme emotional distress because the term has an ordinary, non-technical meaning accessible to jurors, and because our definition of that term in Bishop is "pure dicta."

         ¶17 Mr. Lambdin cites State v. Couch for the proposition that “[i]t is normally unnecessary and undesirable for a trial judge to volunteer definitions of terms of common usage for the jury.” 635 P.2d 89, 94 (Utah 1981). Mr. Lambdin argues that extreme emotional distress has an ordinary, dictionary meaning, and therefore we should not have defined it in Bishop because our definition could be used at some future point by a district court in its jury instructions. This proposition is completely at odds with our implied constitutional authority to interpret the law in order to address the merits of cases before us. See UTAH CONST. art. VIII, § 1 (“The judicial power of the state shall be vested in a Supreme Court . . . .”); id. art. VIII, § 3 (“The Supreme Court shall have . . . power to issue all . . . orders necessary for . . . the complete determination of any cause.”); State v. Walker, 2011 UT 53, ¶ 31, 267 P.3d 210 (Lee, J., concurring) (“[T]he role of modern judges is to interpret the law . . . and then to apply it to the facts of the cases that come before them. The process of interpretation, moreover, involves . . . a determination of what the law is as handed down by the legislature . . . .” (footnote omitted)).

         ¶18 When this court applies a statute to a given case, it is often necessary to interpret the statute to determine the proper outcome. See Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 177 (1803) ("It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases, must of necessity expound and interpret that rule."). When interpreting a statute in order to apply it to the facts of a case, our primary goal is to determine the intent of the legislature. See Walker, 2011 UT 53, ¶ 31 (Lee, J. concurring) ("The judge . . . is not a primary lawgiver but instead an agent for the legislature . . . ."); Monarrez v. Utah Dep't of Transp., 2016 UT 10, ¶ 11, 368 P.3d 846 ("When interpreting a statute, it is axiomatic that this court's primary goal 'is to give effect to the legislature's intent in light of the purpose that the statute was meant to achieve.'" (citations omitted)).

         ¶19 Because we are merely determining the legislature's intent when we interpret a statute, our interpretation does not create new law, it says what the law is. Additionally, jury instructions are intended to inform jurors of the applicable law. State v. Powell, 2007 UT 9, ¶ 11, 154 P.3d 788 ("[J]ury instructions are statements of the law . . . ." (citation omitted)). Thus, there is no error when a district court includes our interpretation of a statutory term in instructions for the jury, because that interpretation is simply a statement of the law. Utah R. Crim. P. 19(a) ("[T]he court may instruct the jury concerning . . . the definition of terms.").

         ¶20 In Bishop, this court was called upon to define extreme emotional disturbance. The fact that there may be an ordinary meaning of extreme emotional disturbance does not affect this court's authority to determine if the ordinary meaning is the meaning that the legislature intended. We therefore reject Mr. Lambdin's argument that it is improper for this court to adopt any definition of extreme emotional distress.

         ¶21 We likewise reject Mr. Lambdin's request to abandon Bishop's definition of extreme emotional distress as "pure dicta." Whether or not it was dicta in Bishop, [3] the definition has been used many times by this court since Bishop was issued. See, e.g., State v. White, 2011 UT 21, ¶¶ 26-27, 251 P.3d 820; State v. Spillers, 2007 UT 13, ¶ 14, 152 P.3d 315, abrogated on other grounds by State v. Reece, 2015 UT 45, 349 P.3d 712; State v. Shumway, 2002 UT 124, ¶ 9, 63 P.3d 94; State v. Standiford, 769 P.2d 254, 259-60 (Utah 1988). Mr. Lambdin does not argue that we should overrule any of this precedent, which has clearly established the Bishop interpretation as controlling.

         ¶22 Furthermore, the Bishop definition closely tracks the plain meaning of extreme emotional distress. When interpreting statutes, we look to the ordinary meaning of the words, using the dictionary as our starting point. State v. Canton, 2013 UT 44, ¶ 13, 308 P.3d 517. After determining our starting point, we then must look to the "context of the language in question." Olsen v. Eagle Mountain City, 2011 UT 10, ¶ 9, 248 P.3d 465.

         ¶23 Here, "extreme" is defined as "very serious or severe." Merriam-Webster Online, (last visited Aug. 7, 2017). "Emotion" is defined as "a conscious mental reaction (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by . . . behavioral changes." Id. "Distress" is defined as "pain or suffering." Id. Thus, the dictionary meaning of extreme emotional distress is a reaction in which the subject experiences very severe pain or suffering accompanied by strong feelings, such as anger, that is usually directed toward a specific person and typically accompanied by behavioral changes, such as a loss of self-control. This closely tracks our definition in Bishop. Additionally, the broad language in the ordinary meaning must be put into the context of the special mitigation statute that allows a criminal defendant to be ...

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