District Court, Salt Lake Department The Honorable James T.
Blanch No. 131903972
L. Booher, Freyja Johnson, and Beth Kennedy, Attorneys for
D. Reyes and Tera J. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee
Diana Hagen authored this Opinion, in which Judges Gregory K.
Orme and Jill M. Pohlman concurred.
A jury convicted Johnny Brickman Wall of murdering his
ex-wife, Uta von Schwedler. Wall appeals his conviction,
arguing that there was insufficient evidence to convict him,
that the district court erred in admitting certain DNA
evidence, and that his trial counsel was ineffective in
failing to object to the State's closing argument
involving the DNA evidence. We conclude that Wall has not
carried his burden on appeal to show there was insufficient
evidence to support his murder conviction. Further, the
district court did not exceed its discretion in admitting
certain DNA evidence, and Wall's trial counsel did not
perform deficiently in failing to object to the
prosecutor's characterization of that evidence in closing
argument. Accordingly, we affirm Wall's conviction.
In 1988, a mutual friend introduced Uta to Wall while they
were each completing doctorate programs on the west coast.
Wall and Uta married in 1990, and Wall graduated from medical
school four years later. After medical school, Uta, Wall, and
their newborn son moved to Utah for Wall's residency
program. Over the next few years, they had three more
By 2005, the marriage had failed and Uta moved out of the
family home, leaving the four children to live primarily with
Wall. The couple divorced in 2006.
Wall and Uta responded differently to the divorce. According
to their children, Wall was "very, very sad" and
depressed after the divorce, but over time his mood changed
from sadness to "anger, even hatred" toward Uta.
Wall frequently complained to the children about Uta, saying
that she was "a bad parent," that she was
"selfish," and that she made his "life
difficult." The children said that Wall never treated
Uta "nicely or kindly" after the divorce. At one
point, Wall "physically removed" Uta from his
property when she "tried to come in the front yard"
to pick up the children for her parent time.
Most people who knew Wall knew that he "despised"
Uta. He asked his friends, "Would it be bad if Uta
wasn't here anymore?" and "How would my life be
if she weren't around?" He sent emails to Uta
accusing her of immoral acts and threatening to "move
away" with the children "or continue towards
obtaining full custody." He blamed Uta for his
unhappiness and accused her of "hurt[ing] people that
matter deeply" to him. When she reached out to him
regarding requests from the children's friends for
weekend trips, he asked her to "please stop inserting
[herself] in [his] parent time."
It was clear that Wall did not want Uta in the children's
lives. The summer before her death, Wall took the children to
California but refused to tell them when they were returning
to Utah because he did not want them to tell Uta. If the
children attempted to communicate with Uta while they were
with Wall, "he would become very upset" and would
sometimes take their phones away from them. He was
uncooperative with Uta regarding parent-time exchanges and
adjustments to the custody arrangement. Wall frequently
ignored Uta's messages, and she had to organize
parent-time schedules through her older children.
Uta's response to the divorce was quite different. Her
friends, family, coworkers, and other acquaintances who
testified at trial knew Uta to be "very outgoing, very
friendly, very cheerful," and "full of life."
Those witnesses said her positive attitude continued after
the divorce, and some people "certainly thought she was
happier" after the divorce. She was welcoming to
newcomers and frequently brought homemade treats to work or
to social gatherings. She regularly engaged in physical
activities such as swimming, running, hiking, skiing, and
camping. Uta was in a "very happy" relationship
with a man (the boyfriend) whom the children liked, and the
two eldest children told family members that they "were
so happy that Uta had [the boyfriend]" because he was
"a really, really good match for Uta." No witness
testified that Uta was unhappy or suicidal, except for Wall.
Uta was very involved in her children's lives. Although
she "had a great love and passion for science," she
arranged with her supervisor to work a "30-hour work
week" because "it was important to her to be
available for [her children] after [school] hours."
"Uta's greatest pleasure in life was the love of her
four children," and she wanted to spend more time with
them. She attended their sporting events and musical
performances and created photo albums for each of them.
One of the few things that upset Uta was attempting to work
with Wall regarding the children. A few years after the
divorce, Uta hired an attorney to file a petition to modify
the divorce decree regarding parent time, and the court
ordered mediation. Although Wall and Uta reached an agreement
during mediation, Wall later refused to sign the proposed
order. Thus, for years following the divorce, the custody
arrangement was never sorted out and remained a
Early in September 2011, after years of unsuccessfully
attempting to work out a better custody arrangement outside
of court, Uta reached out to her attorney to discuss filing a
new petition to modify the divorce decree and to consider
moving to appoint a custody evaluator. Wall ignored Uta's
inquiries related to the children, including whether he would
either agree to sign the custody evaluation request or agree
to the proposed parent-time schedule for the upcoming school
year. He also frequently ignored his own attorney's
communications related to these requests. The week before
Uta's death, in an apparent change of course, Wall agreed
to sign the custody evaluation request the following week.
But after he left the children in Uta's care for the
weekend, Wall "excited[ly]" told a new acquaintance
that "he was getting his kids back."
The week before her death, Uta had made a discovery in her
research that could advance a new treatment for childhood
leukemia. According to her supervisor, the "long-term
implications of that discovery" were "very exciting
on a professional level, on a career level, both for Uta and
. . . the lab, because [it would] lead to new peer-reviewed
publications, grants, [and] presentations." This was a
"milestone" in Uta's career that would have had
"positive implications" for her.
On September 26, 2011, the day before her body was
discovered, Uta had a meeting with her supervisor and another
coworker related to this new discovery, and they were all
"quite enthusiastic" because "[t]his was one
of the biggest discoveries [they] had had thus far in the
laboratory." Later that evening, Uta attended one of the
children's soccer games and was "in a great
mood." She spread out a blanket and shared treats with
other parents. Uta told a fellow parent that she "had
been camping that weekend with her kids and [her
boyfriend]" and was looking forward to her upcoming trip
to California with her two youngest children later that week
while Wall took the two eldest children to visit universities
After the soccer game, Wall arrived at Uta's house to
take the children back home. When he arrived, Uta tried to
talk with him to finalize the details for the California
trip, but Wall "rolled up his window and ignored
her." According to the children, Wall appeared annoyed
on the drive home.
With the children out of the house, Uta went about her usual
Monday evening routine of "deep cleaning" the
house. Uta called her boyfriend and made plans with him for
the following night. At around 10:45 p.m., Uta spoke with a
friend over the phone about potential plans for the next day.
That was the last time anyone heard from Uta.
The following morning, on September 27, 2011, Uta's
neighbors did not see her at her kitchen table drinking
coffee and reading her newspaper, as she did all other
mornings. Instead, the newspaper remained in the driveway,
and the garbage cans Uta put out for collection the night
before remained on the street.
That same morning, Uta's eldest daughter awoke at around
6:00 a.m. and got ready for school. She searched the house
for Wall, who usually drove her to the light rail station,
but she could not find him anywhere. The eldest daughter
testified that if Wall had to leave for the hospital in the
middle of the night, he would "generally . . . text
[her] or call [her]" to let her know, but he had not
left her any messages that morning. After calling him twice
with no answer, the eldest daughter walked to the station to
go to school. Wall was spotted by the eldest daughter's
schoolmate and her mother at 7:05 a.m., driving some distance
away from and in the opposite direction of his house, and
Wall still had not returned home to get the youngest children
ready for school by the time the eldest son left for school
around 7:30 a.m. But the two youngest children remembered
speaking with Wall at some point before leaving for school.
Specifically, they remembered seeing an injury to Wall's
eye. Wall told them that he had slept outside on the porch
and had been scratched by their dog, but the youngest
daughter thought Wall was acting "weird, almost
paranoid." Just after 8:00 a.m., a carwash facility
photographed Wall dropping off his car. Wall took his car
there to "detail the inside" and asked the carwash
attendant to focus "extra heavy" in the trunk cargo
area and on a spot on the driver's side back seat.
After leaving his car to be detailed, Wall arrived late for
appointments with patients. He "looked disheveled and
anxious," appeared not to have bathed, and wore the same
clothes as the previous day. A medical assistant noticed that
he had a scratch on the left side of his face and that his
left eye was "reddened and bloodshot." Although two
people who worked in Wall's office said that this scratch
looked like it was caused by a fingernail, "Wall
volunteered an explanation for the scratch, saying that his
dog jumped on him and scratched his face while he was
sleeping outside." One of the assistants "thought
[this] explanation was odd because [Wall] had his dog for a
long time and she had never seen it scratch him before."
When Wall noticed that his assistant was looking at
additional scratches on his arms, he "quickly"
rolled down his sleeves. After seeing one patient, Wall left
to see an eye doctor and did not return to work.
When the eldest children returned home, they too noticed the
scratch to Wall's face and eye. Wall told them that he
had been sleeping outside occasionally over the past few
months and that their dog had scratched him the night before
while he slept outside on the porch. None of the children had
ever seen Wall sleep outside on the porch, and none of them
knew their dog to scratch anyone.
At around 7:45 p.m. on September 27, 2011, Uta's
boyfriend went to visit her as they had planned the night
before. Uta's garbage cans were still on the street, and
her newspaper was still in the driveway. The boyfriend walked
into her house through her unlocked door, which Uta normally
locked before going to bed. He noticed that her bathroom door
was slightly ajar and that the light was on. On his way to
the bathroom, he walked past her bedroom and noticed that the
blinds, which were always open, had been pulled shut. The
boyfriend reached the bathroom, announced his presence,
opened the door, and found Uta dead in her bathtub with the
cold water running but not overflowing. She wore only her
pajama shorts, and her bloodied tank top was folded at the
edge of the bathtub. The boyfriend called the police, who
quickly arrived on the scene.
Upon entering the house, the first responders noted that
there were pills strewn across the bedroom floor, a lamp had
toppled over on the bed, and a vase and books from the
nightstand had been knocked onto the floor. The comforter on
the bed had been balled up in a way that appeared to conceal
several dried bloodstains. The fitted bed sheet contained one
large pool of blood and two smaller pools of blood that
"show[ed] motion in three different directions,"
indicating "a sign of a real struggle." There was
also a bloodstain on the pillowcase. In the bathroom, there
was blood smeared on the sink and below the windowsill
located above the bathtub, but there was no blood smeared on
the walls between Uta's bedroom and bathroom or on any of
the light switches. There was a shampoo bottle standing
upright in the middle of the bathroom floor, which was
usually kept in the windowsill above the bathtub. Under
Uta's body, the first responders found a large kitchen
knife. Also in the bathwater was a magazine, the sports
section of the newspaper (which Uta never read), and the
youngest daughter's photo album. There were dried
bloodstains that looked like shoeprints on the kitchen floor.
Some of the officers testified that the scene appeared
"suspicious," as if "there could have been a
struggle," and that it "did not appear consistent
with an overdose or accidental death." After leaving the
scene, one of the officers contacted detectives to conduct an
First Version of the Events of September 26 and 27
Later that night, the detectives arrived at Wall's house
to ask him "if he was willing to come down to [the]
police station to talk." The officers did not tell Wall
what they wanted to talk about, and he did not ask them.
While Wall waited to be interviewed, the detectives first
interviewed the boyfriend. The boyfriend was
"compliant" and "helpful." He did not
"have any trouble time-lining himself, explaining what
he had been doing the weekend before, [or what happened] the
day before. He seemed to be honest in all of his
In contrast, Wall's responses to the detectives'
questions were vague and he spoke in generalities rather than
directly answering questions about what occurred the previous
night. When the detectives asked where he went the night
before after picking up the children from Uta's house,
Wall said, "I don't know . . . I don't rem . . .
I mean, I don't usually remember every . . . what I do,
but . . . ah . . . usually what we do." (Omissions in
original.) He went on tangents about what usually happened
when he retrieved the children from Uta's house at the
conclusion of her parent time. The officers kept redirecting
Wall, stating, "So what happened last night, though,
[Wall]? This was just last night." But Wall continued to
respond to inquiries about the previous night with things the
family "usually" did on Monday evenings or what the
children "sometimes" did when they got back to
Wall's house. Wall could not say if he had been home the
entire night or if he had gone back to Uta's house after
picking up the children. Wall evaded direct answers about the
last time he had seen Uta, and he could not remember if he
had recently touched Uta or the last time he had been inside
Uta's house. When directly asked if he had been inside
Uta's house on September 26 or 27, Wall responded,
"I don't think so." When asked if there was
"any reason, whatsoever, that [his] DNA . . . would be
under [Uta's] fingernails," Wall responded, "I
don't know." When he was asked if he killed Uta, he
said, "I don't think I did it," "I
don't think I was there," and, "If I did it, I
did make a mistake, and I am sorry. But I don't think I
Eventually, over the span of three hours, Wall gave an
account of the things he did on September 27, 2011. He told
the detectives that he went to a gas station near his house
to purchase eggs between 6:45 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. He said he
returned to the house and had breakfast with his two youngest
children before taking them to school. Wall then went to a
carwash facility because he had "extra time" that
morning and there were "burritos spilled all over"
the front passenger seat. He talked about going to his
office, seeing the eye doctor regarding the scratch on his
eye-which he again said his dog caused-and returning to the
carwash to get his car before driving to his office at the
hospital. At the hospital, Wall apparently parked his car and
left his windows rolled down with his cell phone still inside
the vehicle. He claimed that his cell phone had been stolen
by the time he returned.
Wall could not tell the officers what he had done between
8:00 p.m. on September 26, 2011, and 6:45 a.m. the following
After interviewing Wall, the detectives had photographs taken
of Wall's injuries and had a technician take his
fingerprints. Wall was not arrested, and a detective arranged
a ride home for him. One of the detectives testified at trial
that Wall was "surprised" that he was being
released and asked, "[S]o I'm not going to
jail?" When the detective said he was not, Wall
responded, "[B]ut I'm a monster."