Certiorari to the Utah Court of Appeals
District, Salt Lake The Honorable Vernice S. Trease No.
D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., Karen A. Klucznik, Asst. Solic.
Gen., Salt Lake City, for respondent
Christianson, Alexandra S. McCallum, Salt Lake City, for
Justice Durham authored the opinion of the Court, in which
Associate Chief Justice Lee and Judge Connors joined.
Justice Durrant authored a dissenting opinion in which
Justice Himonas joined.
recused himself, Justice Pearce does not participate herein;
District Court Judge David Connors sat.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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." 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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
"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.
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).
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."
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.
BISHOP'S DEFINITION OF EXTREME EMOTIONAL
DISTRESS IS ACCURATE
In State v. Bishop, this court defined "extreme
emotional disturbance" in connection with the statutory
defense to the crime of murder. 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.
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
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)).
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)).
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.").
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.
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,  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.
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.
Here, "extreme" is defined as "very serious or
severe." Merriam-Webster Online,
http://www.merriam-webster.com (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 ...