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State v. Lopez

Supreme Court of Utah

February 9, 2018

State of Utah, Appellee,
v.
Komasquin Lopez, Appellant.

         On Direct Appeal Third District, Salt Lake The Honorable Judge Paul Parker No. 141900304

          Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., John J. Nielsen, Asst. Solic. Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellee

          Teresa L. Welch, Andrea Garland, Nick A. Falcone, Salt Lake City, for appellant

          Justice Pearce authored the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Durrant, Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Himonas, and Judge DiReda joined.

          Having recused herself, Justice Durham did not participate; District Judge Michael D. DiReda sat.

          Justice Petersen became a member of the Court on November 17, 2017, after oral argument in this matter, and accordingly did not participate.

          OPINION

          PEARCE, JUSTICE

         INTRODUCTION

         ¶ 1 On the day she died, Shannon Lopez picked her husband Komasquin Lopez up from work. According to Lopez, he drove home while he and Shannon argued in the cab of his truck. Lopez claimed that the argument continued until Shannon shot herself with a gun Lopez had in his truck. A jury disbelieved Lopez and convicted him of murder. On appeal, Lopez argues the district court erred in two ways. First, Lopez challenges the admission of expert testimony that assessed Shannon's risk of suicide. Second, Lopez contends that the district court erred by admitting evidence that he had, on one occasion, pointed a gun at Shannon's head, and that on another, he had leveled a gun at an ex-wife and threatened to kill her. Lopez also argues that the errors were harmful both individually and cumulatively, and that insufficient evidence existed to convict him.

         ¶ 2 We conclude that the State did not lay a sufficient foundation to demonstrate that the theory its expert employed could be reliably used to assess the suicide risk of someone who had died. We also conclude that the district court erred by admitting the evidence of Lopez's prior actions. The errors were harmful. We reverse.

         BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 Lopez and Shannon, who were married at the time of Shannon's death, both enjoyed shooting guns. Lopez used a gun throughout his career in the military and law enforcement. Shannon, who had been introduced to firearms at the age of nine, was a recreational shooter. Lopez and Shannon kept multiple guns in their home. Lopez usually carried a gun in his truck and another on his person.

         ¶ 4 On the night of Shannon's death, Shannon picked Lopez up from work. Shannon had consumed methamphetamine in a quantity that the medical examiner described as "toxic." Lopez also had methamphetamine in his system. During their commute, Lopez and Shannon argued about Shannon's methamphetamine use and their financial problems. Lopez said during a police interview "that Shannon's last words were . . . that she would take the kids and go to her father's[.]" He "repeat[ed] . . . several times during [one of the] interview[s]" that "[s]he said she'd take the kids, she's already packed, and she'll leave . . . ." He further stated that he "told her . . . during the argument he was going to leave her also." During his trial testimony, Lopez maintained that he said he would leave her, but denied hearing Shannon say that she would leave him.

         ¶ 5 Lopez testified that as he was making a left hand turn, he heard the sound of breaking glass. Lopez turned to see that Shannon was "slumped forward." Lopez tried to turn the truck around to take Shannon to a hospital, but crashed into another car and then into a fence. Witnesses saw Lopez jump out of the truck and lie on the ground while saying "sorry mommy" or "sorry mama" repeatedly.

         ¶ 6 Shannon had been shot in her left ear. When police arrived, they found that Shannon's legs were crossed at the ankles. Shannon's right hand-Shannon was right handed-was hidden in her jacket sleeve. Officers found a gun and holster on the floor of the driver's side of the cab.[1]

         ¶ 7 Months before she died, Shannon sent a text message to Lopez expressing a desire to end her life. Shannon had spoken to her son, M.N., about suicide in the past. A month before she died, Shannon had threatened to shoot herself.

         ¶ 8 The State charged Lopez with criminal homicide murder. Because the medical examiner's report ruled out the possibility that the gun had accidentally discharged, the key dispute was who fired the shot that killed Shannon.

         ¶ 9 The physical evidence was inconclusive. The medical examiner testified that the location of the wound was "atypical" for a suicide, but that he could not determine the manner of death conclusively. Examiners found gunshot residue on Lopez's hand, but all that could be gleaned from this was that Lopez was "in proximity when [the] firearm was discharged." A blood spatter analyst was unable to conclude whether Shannon's wound was self-inflicted.

         ¶ 10 To prove that Shannon did not shoot herself, the State offered expert testimony from Dr. Craig Bryan, a clinical psychologist. Dr. Bryan specializes in the treatment of suicide patients using the Fluid Vulnerability Theory of Suicide (FVTS). FVTS is the "most commonly used theory and approach to developing treatment and understanding suicide risks." The theory is based on "scientific evidence gained from clinical care of suicide patients as well as multidisciplinary scientific efforts internationally."

         ¶ 11 FVTS assesses two different types of risk: baseline and acute. Predispositions-including demographic factors, "[d]ifficulty managing emotions, " and "history of psychiatric disorders"- increase the baseline risk, meaning that "[i]ndividuals with many predispositions . . . . experience more suicidal crises more often and take longer to 'recover' from crises and discrete periods of emotional distress." This baseline risk can be "offset[]" by "protective factors, " such as an optimistic outlook, a strong support network, or motherhood. "Acute risk, " on the other hand, "entails the emotional, physiological, behavioral, and cognitive factors associated with an active suicidal episode." Taking baseline and acute risk together, the model posits that "a triggering event will only lead to suicide among individuals with sufficient [baseline risk]." When applying FVTS, Dr. Bryan conducts interviews with his patients. Sometimes, Dr. Bryan employs testing "designed to . . . identify the risk and protective factors in a way that might not be obvious to the respondent."

         ¶ 12 Lopez challenged the admission of Dr. Bryan's testimony on various grounds, including that it was neither helpful nor reliable. The district court admitted "Dr. Bryan's opinion as to whether Shannon Lopez's behavior prior to her death was inconsistent with suicide" into evidence. The district court excluded, however, "[a]ny testimony that Dr. Bryan's opinions are definitive or based on scientific certainty."

         ¶ 13 In response to Dr. Bryan's testimony, the defense called an expert who testified that Shannon's death was a "classic suicide, " noting that "[t]ypically someone doesn't hold their head still while you shoot them."

         ¶ 14 The State also sought to offer evidence of several prior acts involving Lopez threatening a family member with a gun and/or pointing a gun at their head. The court allowed the admission of two of those acts.[2] The first described Lopez and Shannon talking with their coworker about how to kill effectively. To demonstrate, Lopez pulled out a gun and pointed it at Shannon's head near her left ear. The district court found that "the act of someone describing the best place to shoot someone, in fact even demonstrating that, is very relevant to the identification of someone who may have done that at another time."

         ¶ 15 The second prior act involved an argument Lopez had with an ex-wife where he "hit her in the stomach, " "pointed a gun at her head, " and verbally threatened to kill them both if she ever sought a divorce. The district court reasoned this evidence was admissible because "the identity of the shooter is the issue, and therefore, it is relevant to that, what he did to a prior spouse, under a prior circumstance when she indicated she was leaving him."

         ¶ 16 The jury found Lopez guilty of murder. The jurors additionally found Lopez had used a dangerous weapon. The district court sentenced Lopez to sixteen years to life. Lopez appeals.

         ISSUES AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶ 17 Lopez first argues that Dr. Bryan's testimony should not have been admitted because, among other things, it lacked an adequate foundation. Next, Lopez contends that the character evidence should not have been admitted because it was not relevant, not offered for a proper purpose, and was prejudicial. Lopez also argues cumulative error and claims there was insufficient evidence to convict him.

         ¶ 18 We review the admission of expert testimony and character evidence under an abuse of discretion standard. State v. Maestas, 2012 UT 46, ¶ 154, 299 P.3d 892; State v. Thornton, 2017 UT 9, ¶ 56, 391 P.3d 1016. Because we agree with Lopez on the first two grounds, and conclude they constitute harmful error, we do not reach the issues of cumulative error or sufficiency of the evidence.

         ANALYSIS

         I. The District Court Abused Its Discretion by Admitting Dr. Bryan's Testimony Without an Adequate ...


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