Tag: credibility

2024 UT App 43 – domestic violence appeal

State v. Arce – 2024 UT App 43


STATE OF UTAH, Appellee, v. JOSE FELIPE ARCE, Appellant.

Opinion No. 20220006-CA Filed March 28, 2024

First District Court, Logan Department The Honorable Brandon J. MaynardNo. 191100762

Freyja Johnson, Emily Adams, and Hannah Leavitt-Howell, Attorneys for Appellant, assisted by law student Ryder Seamons[1]

Sean D. Reyes and Marian Decker, Attorneys for Appellee, assisted by law student Rebecca Barker

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES RYAN D. TENNEY and AMY J. OLIVER concurred.


¶1        A domestic dispute ensued on an emotional evening after Jose Felipe Arce had returned home from attending the birth of a child he believed he fathered as a result of an affair. Arce does not dispute that an argument occurred. He denies, however, that he hit or choked his spouse (Wife). This appeal centers on Wife’s statements near the time of the event and her complete recantation at trial. Arce claims numerous errors, including that the trial court should not have allowed the State to compel Wife to invoke her Fifth Amendment right 47 times in front of the jury, a deputy should not have been allowed to vouch for a particular version of Wife’s testimony, the State and a witness should not have used the word “victim” 29 times, and these errors cumulatively prejudiced him. Although we do not endorse the approach taken by the trial court or the parties, we affirm the convictions.


¶2           The State charged Arce with, and the jury convicted him on, one count of aggravated assault (domestic violence) and five counts of domestic violence in the presence of a child. At the center of this appeal are the different versions of events as related by Wife. We recite the facts in a light most favorable to the jury’s verdict. See State v. Holgate, 2000 UT 74, ¶ 2, 10 P.3d 346.

Alleged Assault and Wife’s Statements in the Subsequent Hours and


¶3           In July 2019, Arce visited the hospital for the birth of a child whom both Arce and Wife believed he may have fathered with another woman. Wife described the day as an emotional one filled with tears. When Arce returned from the hospital, the couple decided to take their kids swimming at a hot springs resort. The couple talked about the difficult situation on the drive there, with more crying from Wife. On the drive home, their conversation escalated into an argument while the children slept in the back seat. After Arce asked for forgiveness, Wife said she had forgiven him for “many things” but “this was just too much.” Arce pulled the car over, and Wife said that the two “couldn’t be together anymore.” Wife later told police and neighbors that after pulling over, Arce hit and choked her.

¶4          Arce then drove the family home, and he told the children to go inside. Wife later told police and neighbors that, as they continued arguing, Arce hit her, threw her to the ground, kicked her, pulled her hair, tried to choke her, and threatened to hit her with a beer bottle.

¶5          At this point, Wife ran to her neighbor’s (Neighbor) home. Neighbor could hear Arce yelling as she opened the door to find Wife out of breath, shaking, and crying. Wife was in a t-shirt with no pants. Neighbor and her husband (Neighbor’s Husband) believed Wife was seeking safety. Wife told them Arce was trying to hurt her. She also told the couple she wanted Arce out of the house. She then recounted the earlier fight that had happened during the drive home, including that after arriving home Arce had hit and kicked her and tried to choke her. Neighbor did not see any injuries on Wife. Neighbor’s Husband said that he saw “a red mark kind of on her collarbone on her left side.”

¶6          Neighbor’s Husband, a deputy sheriff, called police, who arrived fewer than ten minutes later. The responding officer (Deputy) interviewed Wife at Neighbor’s home that evening. Deputy testified that Wife appeared “extremely distraught,” “frantic,” and “emotionally distressed” and that she continuously wiped her eyes and nose from crying. During the interview, Wife told Deputy that Arce both struck and choked her. She also recounted that after returning home, Arce dragged her out of the car by her hair, threatened to hit her with a beer bottle, choked her, and slapped her. Deputy observed that the area under Wife’s right eye was “somewhat swollen” and that she had “some sort of reddish mark” on her collarbone that looked like it was beginning to bruise.

¶7          By that time, Arce had left the scene. Wife signed a request for a no-contact order and, with her children, went to emergency housing that the Deputy arranged. Wife also completed a lethality assessment. In the assessment, Wife indicated that she thought Arce might try to kill her. In an additional comment section, Wife noted that “having [Arce] at the home was a concern of safety for her.”

¶8          The following day, a police officer (Detective) interviewed Wife at her work. Wife again recounted the events, including Arce choking her, slapping her, grabbing her hair, throwing her to the ground, and threatening to hit her with a bottle. Wife also filled out a written statement during the interview with Detective recounting these same allegations. The top of the statement gave the following warning, “You are notified that the statements you are about to make may be presented to a magistrate or a judge in lieu of your sworn testimony at a preliminary examination. Any false statements you make and that you do not believe to be true may subject you to criminal punishment as a Class A Misdemeanor.” Wife signed the statement.

¶9          That same night, Deputy interviewed Arce by phone. Arce explained that he and Wife had taken the children to the resort “to have a good day” but Wife kept bringing up the infidelity and birth of the baby, so the two argued. Arce said that during the argument, he went through Wife’s phone, saw messages from another man, and asked, “[W]ho the f*** is this person?” When asked if he hit or choked Wife, Arce responded that he did not recall. Arce did, however, say that there was a miscommunication between them and that there was “some pushing and shoving.”

Wife’s Recantation and Testimony at Trial

¶10 The same day that Detective interviewed Wife, Deputy listened to a voicemail from Wife asking that all charges be dropped. When Wife later spoke with Deputy on the phone, she again asked that the charges be dropped. Wife explained that Arce “had a good job and that she needed help with the five children.”

¶11 At trial, Wife testified consistently with the prior statements she had made to law enforcement and her neighbors, however, she insisted that she made up the allegations of domestic violence against Arce. From the stand, Wife said, “This is why I wanted to just come up here because I hear all the charges and it’s really very selfish of me, you know. So this is why I’m sitting up here and I’m saying what really happened.” Wife testified that all the events occurred as she explained to law enforcement and the neighbors but that Arce never hit or choked her. Wife testified that after telling Arce they could not be together anymore, she told him to take her home, and he did. Wife testified that she opened the car door and sat on the edge of her seat while they continued arguing and yelling at one another but no physical altercation occurred.

¶12 When the State began asking her questions about police arriving the night of the incident and what she told them, the court stopped the questioning and excused the jury. The court explained to Wife that she had a right not to incriminate herself and that doing so would open her up to prosecution. The State asserted several times, “We won’t charge her.” The State also served Wife with a written notice of use immunity for purposes of the trial.[2] And the court provided her with the opportunity to speak with an attorney. Subsequently, Wife was appointed counsel.

¶13 Following a recess, the State asked that Wife be declared a hostile witness, allowing it to ask her leading questions, which the court granted. After speaking with his client, Wife’s counsel advised the court that Wife would be exercising her Fifth Amendment right moving forward. The State argued that the immunity it had offered Wife would protect her and that it was not the State’s intent “to ask the Court to hold [Wife] in this case in contempt” for refusing to testify. Wife’s counsel argued that the notice of use immunity was inadequate to protect her because it expressly did not grant immunity against a future perjury prosecution. The State again asked the court to treat Wife as a hostile witness. Arce’s counsel objected, arguing that the State knew weeks in advance that Wife might invoke her Fifth Amendment right. The State argued that knowing what Wife would do for weeks in advance was “a little bit of a stretch” and that its grant of use immunity was sufficient.

¶14        During further argument over whether to allow the State to treat Wife as a hostile witness, the State again said it would not seek to have the court hold her in contempt. The court ultimately granted the State’s request and received affirmation again from the State that it would not ask the court to hold Wife in contempt if she refused to testify.

¶15        The next day, the State retracted its written immunity offer and explained that it planned to ask Wife questions to which she could “choose to invoke the Fifth or to respond.” Wife’s counsel objected, arguing, “[T]he State’s going to try to . . . present their case by asking those questions and hearing the Fifth . . . . [T]hat’s just them trying to testify to the jury by the questions they’re asking.” The court disagreed, explaining that anything the State said was not evidence and that Wife could not make a “blanket” invocation of her Fifth Amendment right.

¶16 When Wife took the stand again, she invoked the Fifth Amendment 47 times in response to the State’s questions.[3] The State’s questions included asking Wife about the same things she had addressed the day before, prior to invoking her constitutional right to silence. Arce’s counsel did not object to or seek to limit the State’s leading questions or Wife’s invocations; neither did he request a mistrial.

Other Testimony at Trial

¶17 During the trial, the State called Neighbor, Neighbor’s Husband, Deputy, and Detective to the stand; each recounted the events and gave consistent testimony of the statements Wife made to them concerning the events during the evening in question— including the physical abuse she allegedly experienced at the hands of Arce.

¶18 During Deputy’s examination, the State asked, “And so ultimately what did your investigation lead you to believe happened that night?” Defense counsel made no objection. Deputy responded, “Based off all my observations and interview, I believe that the victim had been struck and choked and that there was a domestic violence assault that occurred.” The State then asked, “And I just want to emphasize, why is it that you believed that this truly happened?” Defense counsel again made no objection. Deputy answered,

I believe it truly happened given a number of things. Mainly, when I spoke to [Wife], she appeared to be honest and genuine in the emotion that she was describing things with was clearly emotional distress, upset that I’ve seen. And not every case is the same. I’ve seen other people who have been victims of assault act similar, so that’s why I believed it. She appeared to be honest and genuine.

¶19 During Detective’s testimony, the State moved to admit into evidence Wife’s written statement that was given under penalty of perjury, which the court allowed.

¶20 The State also called two expert witnesses. A clinical psychologist testified about patterns of domestic violence and that individuals experiencing abuse frequently stay in the relationship and/or recant their previous stories. And a pediatric nurse practitioner testified about strangulation, including that in over 50% of strangulation cases there are no visible injuries.

¶21 Throughout the trial, the State, Deputy, and Detective referred to Wife as “the victim” 29 times. And the State and its witnesses—primarily the clinical psychologist—used the term “victim” or “victims” generally an additional 45 times. The State also referred to Wife as the “alleged victim,” primarily during jury selection but also sporadically throughout the trial.

Closing Arguments and Verdict

¶22        In closing arguments, the State argued that the jury should believe Wife’s original statements to her neighbors and police as those were made instinctually to keep her family safe from a threat rather than out of “selfish[ness] or insincer[ity].” The defense argued that Wife had every reason to hate Arce but she wanted to set the record straight about her lies concerning the events of that night and that the State’s case fell apart without her lies.

¶23        During deliberation, the jury asked for access to the State’s “questions on day 2 to [Wife] when she pled the fifth.” The court did not grant the request.

¶24        The jury convicted Arce on all charges. Arce now appeals.


¶25 Arce raises three issues on appeal. First, Arce argues that the trial court incorrectly allowed the State to compel Wife to invoke her Fifth Amendment right 47 times in front of the jury. We give trial courts “broad discretion to admit or exclude evidence, including lay witness testimony, and will disturb [a trial court’s] ruling only for abuse of discretion.” State v. Perea, 2013 UT 68, ¶ 31, 322 P.3d 624 (cleaned up). But the trial court must correctly interpret and apply the law. Id. ¶ 30. We review “the legal questions underlying the admissibility of evidence” for correctness. Dierl v. Birkin, 2023 UT App 6, ¶ 15, 525 P.3d 127 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 527 P.3d 1107 (Utah 2023).

¶26 Second, Arce argues that he received constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel when his counsel (1) did not seek to limit or remediate the continued questioning of Wife by objecting, moving to strike both the questions and invocations, or asking for a curative instruction; (2) failed to object to Deputy improperly opining on and vouching for the credibility of Wife’s report the night of the incident; and (3) failed to object to the State and witnesses referring to Wife as “the victim” 29 times during the trial. “When a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is raised for the first time on appeal, there is no lower court ruling to review and we must decide whether the defendant was deprived of the effective assistance of counsel as a matter of law.” State v. Reid, 2018 UT App 146, ¶ 17, 427 P.3d 1261 (cleaned up), cert. denied, 432 P.3d 1225 (Utah 2018).

¶27 Finally, Arce argues that under the cumulative error doctrine, the evidentiary error and ineffective assistance of counsel Arce received should undermine our confidence in the outcome of the trial. “We will reverse a jury verdict or sentence only if the cumulative effect of the several errors undermines our confidence that a fair trial was had.” State v. Lopez, 2019 UT App 11, ¶ 22, 438 P.3d 950 (cleaned up).


  1. Evidentiary Ruling

¶28 Arce argues that the trial court improperly overruled Wife’s counsel’s objection to the State questioning Wife despite knowing that she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right. Here, the trial court did not expressly say why it allowed the State, knowing Wife would invoke her constitutional privilege, to continually examine Wife. After Wife met with counsel and determined that she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right moving forward, the State asked the court to declare Wife a hostile witness and allow the State to continue examining her with leading questions. Wife’s counsel objected to declaring her hostile, arguing that the State already knew she would invoke her right for each question, which would allow the State, in Wife’s counsel’s words, to “present their case by asking those questions and hearing the Fifth” and to offer testimony “to the jury by the questions they’re asking.” The court responded that “anything [the State] says isn’t evidence, so it doesn’t matter.” And Wife’s counsel responded that the court should not allow it precisely because the State’s questions would not be evidence. The court disagreed and determined that the State could ask questions and that Wife could invoke her right to every question if she wanted to but she had to testify “if it [had] nothing to do [with a topic] that would incriminate her.” The court further determined that Wife’s invocation of her Fifth Amendment right could not be invoked in a blanket fashion and that she would have to invoke it for each question, as there may be some she could answer.

¶29 The State argues that regardless of the court’s reasoning, the court did not err because Wife waived her privilege by testifying earlier and recanting her story.[4] We note that the State did not make this argument during trial. Alternatively, the State argues that Wife never had the privilege to begin with because the State provided her with immunity.[5]

¶30 Notwithstanding each parties’ arguments, our review of the record indicates that Arce did not preserve this issue. It is “well within our prerogative to raise a preservation issue on our own initiative when it provides an alternative basis for affirmance, even if the State failed to brief the preservation argument.” State v. Malo, 2020 UT 42, ¶ 20 n.7, 469 P.3d 982. In Cook Associates, Inc. v. Warnick, 664 P.2d 1161 (Utah 1983), our supreme court confronted “[w]hether an objection by one party properly preserves an objection on appeal as to another party.” Id. at 1164. The supreme court followed what “[v]irtually every other jurisdiction that has considered the question has concluded,” which is that “an objection . . . by one or more parties at trial does not inure to the benefit of other parties who do not join in the objection.” Id. at 1164–65. In State v. Calliham, 2002 UT 86, 55 P.3d 573, two brothers charged with murder were tried together. Id. ¶¶ 1–3. Following their convictions, one brother (Brother 1) appealed. Id. ¶¶ 18–19. As part of his appeal, Brother 1 argued that the trial court’s decision to admit specific evidence was an error that violated his constitutional rights. Id. ¶ 32. However, our supreme court held that this issue was not preserved for appeal, as it was the other brother (Brother 2) who had objected—an objection which Brother 1 did not join at trial. Id. ¶ 33. “[Brother 1] did not join in [Brother 2’s] objections on the record or make any objection of his own,” thus preventing him from claiming on appeal that it prejudiced him or undermined his constitutional rights. Id.

¶31 Similarly, in the case before us, Arce was not the one who objected to Wife taking the stand, knowing she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right for every question—it was Wife’s counsel who made the objection. Arce did not join that objection.[6]

Therefore, as in Calliham, Arce has not preserved the right to now claim on appeal that the court erred in its decision to allow Wife to testify, which in turn allowed the jury to hear her invocations 47 times.[7]

¶32        And the issue needed to be “preserved in order to give the trial court an opportunity to address the claimed error, and if appropriate, correct it.” Kell v. State, 2012 UT 25, ¶ 11, 285 P.3d 1133 (cleaned up). Here, the trial court had no such opportunity. It is readily evident from our review of the record that the trial court was not focused on the impact these Fifth Amendment issues would have on Arce. Instead, the trial court ruled on this issue through the lens of its impact on Wife. Had Arce objected, the trial court may have fully engaged in an analysis of whether Wife’s Fifth Amendment right was waived or abandoned as the State suggests. But Arce made no such objection, and therefore the court engaged in no such analysis.

¶33        “As a general rule, claims not raised before the trial court may not be raised on appeal,” and it is “well-established” that this “preservation requirement applies to every claim, including constitutional questions.” Conner v. Department of Com., 2019 UT App 91, ¶ 48, 443 P.3d 1250 (cleaned up). Despite Arce’s arguments that he preserved this issue, the record does not support his assertions, as “a party must raise [the issue] before the [trial] court specifically, in a timely manner, and with support by evidence and relevant legal authority, such that the issue has been presented to the trial court in such a way that the trial court has an opportunity to rule on it.” Id. (cleaned up). As discussed, the record does not reflect an objection from Arce on the issue but instead from Wife, which did not allow the court to review the issue as it pertains to Arce. Therefore, the issue is not properly preserved, and we do not consider the merits of his claim.

  1. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

¶34        “To prevail on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, a defendant must meet the two-prong Strickland test: (1) counsel’s performance was objectively deficient and (2) the deficient performance resulted in prejudice.” State v. Fleming, 2019 UT App 181, ¶ 9, 454 P.3d 862 (citing Strickland v. Washington, 466 US 668, 687–88 (1984)), cert. denied, 462 P.3d 803 (Utah 2020). “[D]eficient performance is not determined in a vacuum; rather, it involves asking whether the strategy [counsel] employed was that of a reasonable, competent lawyer in the real-time context” of a trial. State v. Wilkes, 2020 UT App 175, ¶ 24, 479 P.3d 1142, cert. denied, 485 P.3d 944 (Utah 2021). “However, even where a court cannot conceive of a sound strategic reason for counsel’s challenged conduct, it does not automatically follow that counsel was deficient. . . . [T]he ultimate question is always whether, considering all the circumstances, counsel’s acts or omissions were objectively unreasonable.” State v. Scott, 2020 UT 13, ¶ 36, 462 P.3d 350. And a defendant establishes prejudice by showing “that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” State v. Gonzalez, 2021 UT App 135, ¶ 8, 501 P.3d 1205 (cleaned up). “That is, the defendant’s showing must undermine our confidence in the outcome.” Id. (cleaned up). The impact of such alleged errors must “be a demonstrable reality.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶35        “Because both prongs of the Strickland test must be met to establish ineffective assistance of counsel, we need not always address both prongs.” Fleming, 2019 UT App 181, ¶ 9 (cleaned up). “And if it is easier to dispose of an ineffectiveness claim on the ground of lack of sufficient prejudice that course should be followed.” Gonzalez, 2021 UT App 135, ¶ 7 (cleaned up). Given the likelihood that similar events to those of this case can and will arise before the trial courts of this state, we address counsel’s alleged deficient performance, although we ultimately determine that Arce’s claims fail for lack of prejudice.

  1. Deficient Performance
  2. Invoking the Fifth Amendment

¶36 In addition to Arce’s arguments already discussed above regarding Wife’s invocation of her Fifth Amendment right, Arce argues that his counsel acted deficiently by not seeking to limit or remediate the State’s continued leading questions and Wife’s invocations by objecting, moving to strike both the questions and invocations, or asking for a curative instruction. Based on the reasoning in Mitchell v. United States, 526 U.S. 314 (1999), and In re Flint Water Cases, 53 F.4th 176 (6th Cir. 2022), competent counsel could reasonably choose not to take any of these actions, as Wife had waived her Fifth Amendment privilege by having voluntarily testified about the matter in question. A “witness . . . may not testify voluntarily about a subject and then invoke the privilege against self-incrimination when questioned about the details.” Mitchell, 526 U.S. at 321. “When the witness testifies, the privilege is waived for the matters to which the witness testifies.” In re Flint Water Cases, 53 F.4th at 193 (cleaned up). Thus, Arce’s counsel, and correspondingly the trial court, could have concluded that Wife did not have the right to invoke the privilege. Therefore, we determine that Arce fails to show deficient performance.[8]

¶37 Arce claims his counsel should have objected and pointed the court to rule 403 (excluding evidence which is substantially more prejudicial than probative), rule 510(c) (disallowing comment by a judge or counsel about, or a factfinder making an inference from, the invocation of a privilege), or rule 611(a) (allowing a court to control the examination of witnesses so as to avoid wasting time or the harassment or embarrassment of a witness) of the Utah Rules of Evidence. Arce makes no effort, however, to provide us with the context of Wife’s 47 invocations or the depth of her earlier testimony.[9] While Arce discusses Wife’s trial testimony prior to the court’s interruption to allow her to consult her counsel, he provides the court no comparison of that testimony with the subject matter of the questions asked on cross-examination when she began invoking the Fifth Amendment. As a result, the briefing leaves us with no understanding about whether all 47 invocations were directly addressing matters about which Wife had already testified—particularly her recantation. Assuming the questions were simply cross-examination of statements made earlier in trial, Arce’s counsel would have no basis for an objection because the privilege would be waived. Furthermore, without an understanding of the depth of Wife’s earlier testimony, we cannot gauge whether 47 invocations corresponded in an impermissible or potentially prejudicial way to Wife’s prior trial testimony. Within the confines of the briefing provided to us, we cannot fault Arce’s counsel for failing to object or make other efforts to limit the testimony.

¶38        Given that there is an obvious basis to believe that Wife no longer possessed a Fifth Amendment privilege and where the briefing does not delineate any context for the questions for which the privilege was invoked, Arce has not overcome the presumption that his counsel acted reasonably, and we cannot conclude that Arce’s counsel was objectively deficient in his representation. State v. Hart, 2020 UT App 25, ¶ 20, 460 P.3d 604 (stating that to prove deficient performance a defendant must overcome a “strong presumption that his trial counsel rendered adequate assistance” (cleaned up)), cert. denied, 462 P.3d 805 (Utah 2020). We acknowledge that there certainly could be circumstances where compelling a witness to invoke a privilege 47 times would be troubling, but we can reach no conclusion about counsel’s failure to object to these questions here.

  1. Witness Opining and Vouching

¶39        Arce further argues that his counsel performed deficiently by failing to object to Deputy opining on and vouching for the credibility of Wife’s statement the night of the incident. Rule 608(a) of the Utah Rules of Evidence “permits testimony concerning a witness’s general character or reputation for truthfulness or untruthfulness but prohibits any testimony as to a witness’s truthfulness on a particular occasion.” State v. King, 2010 UT App 396, ¶ 44, 248 P.3d 984 (cleaned up); see also State v. Adams, 2000 UT 42, ¶ 19, 5 P.3d 642 (detective testifying “he did not believe [the victim] was coached” was inadmissible vouching); State v. Jones, 2020 UT App 161, ¶ 14, 478 P.3d 1055 (per curiam) (“[A]dmission of testimony that bolsters the credibility of another witness’s testimony on a particular occasion is improper.”); id. ¶ 18 (officer testifying regarding interview techniques for domestic violence victims did not violate rule 608 because he did not opine on the victim’s truthfulness on a particular occasion); State v. Lewis, 2020 UT App 132, ¶ 26, 475 P.3d 956 (police sergeant describing variations he sees in victims’ statements when multiple accounts are given was not bolstering, as “he did not directly opine on [the victim’s] credibility”); State v. Cegars, 2019 UT App 54, ¶¶ 23–24, 440 P.3d 924 (school counselor testifying that she did not believe the victim would fabricate allegations was inadmissible bolstering); State v. Vail, 2002 UT App 176, ¶¶ 15, 17, 51 P.3d 1285 (detective testifying that two victims of child sexual abuse “exhibited the indicators that she equated with trustworthiness” was inadmissible bolstering); State v. Stefaniak, 900 P.2d 1094, 1095 (Utah Ct. App. 1995) (social worker testifying that a victim of abuse “seemed to be quite candid” in an interview was inadmissible vouching (cleaned up)). For example, an officer cannot comment on whether a witness appeared “to be genuine” during an interview, as it is a direct comment on the witness’s truthfulness and clearly violates rule 608. State v. Bragg, 2013 UT App 282, ¶ 31, 317 P.3d 452 (cleaned up). We emphasize again today that the State’s use of a law enforcement officer’s testimony for bolstering and vouching in this manner is inappropriate. We perceive no strategic reason that Arce’s counsel would reasonably fail to object to this testimony.

¶40 But even so, Arce can prevail only if he establishes both deficient performance and prejudice. And for the reasons set forth in Part II.B, we conclude that he was not prejudiced by this deficient performance.

  1. Referring to Wife as “the Victim”

¶41        Finally, Arce argues that his counsel performed deficiently by failing to object to the State and witnesses referring to Wife as “the victim” 29 times in front of the jury. Our supreme court “recognize[s] the gravity of referring to witnesses as victims during a trial.” State v. Vallejo, 2019 UT 38, ¶ 102, 449 P.3d 39. In cases, such as the one before us, “where a defendant claims that the charged crime did not actually occur, and the allegations against that defendant are based almost exclusively on the complaining witness’s testimony—the trial court, the State, and all witnesses should be prohibited from referring to the complaining witness as ‘the victim.’” State v. Devey, 2006 UT App 219, ¶ 17, 138 P.3d 90. Though in this case we do not exclusively rely on such testimony because there was a “sort of reddish mark” on Wife’s collarbone and Arce told Deputy there was “some pushing and shoving,” we still restate today that the action of referring to the complaining witness as “the victim” by anyone in front of the jury is inappropriate. Again, we perceive no strategic reason that Arce’s counsel would reasonably fail to object to this testimony.

  1. Prejudice

¶42        Ultimately, Arce has not shown that any of these alleged errors prejudiced him. There is not a reasonable probability that but for Arce’s counsel failing to object further to the State’s questioning of Wife, moving to strike, or asking for a curative instruction, the result of Arce’s trial would be different. As mentioned, the jury heard testimony from four witnesses, each of whom told the same story, namely, that Wife said Arce hit and choked her that night. The testimony of these four witnesses matched Wife’s own words in the statement she gave to Detective. Furthermore, the reason Wife provided to Deputy for dismissing the charges was not that she had lied but that she needed Arce to keep his job as well as his help with their children. As we point out above, even Arce in his statement to Deputy admitted there was “some pushing and shoving,” which is inconsistent with Wife’s recantation. And Arce did not explicitly deny that he hit, kicked, or choked Wife, instead stating only that he could not recall doing so. Most reasonable jurors would think that physical assault is something that one would remember having committed. Furthermore, and perhaps most convincingly, Wife’s own statement to Detective was entered into evidence for the jury to read. In short, finding that none of these alleged errors undermines our confidence in the outcome of this case, each of Arce’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel fails for lack of prejudice. Moreover, because none of these alleged errors were sufficiently prejudicial alone, we, for the same reason, conclude that the errors do not cumulatively undermine our confidence in the outcome of the trial.[10]


¶43 Arce’s claim that the court erred by allowing the State to repeatedly compel Wife to invoke her Fifth Amendment privilege in front of the jury fails because the issue was not preserved. Furthermore, Arce’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel fail because his counsel’s failure to object to Wife’s invocations, Deputy’s vouching for Wife’s credibility, and repeated references to Wife as “the victim” do not present a reasonable probability that but for Arce’s counsel’s failure the result of the proceeding would have been different. We therefore affirm Arce’s convictions.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

[1] See Utah R. Jud. Admin. 14-807 (governing law student practice in the courts of Utah).

[2] A “grant of use immunity [prohibits] any prosecutorial use of [a witness’s] testimony or evidence gained from it” against the witness. State v. Morris, 2017 UT App 112, ¶ 17, 400 P.3d 1183, cert. denied, 409 P.3d 1049 (Utah 2017).

[3] The State argues that she invoked the Fifth Amendment 45 times, but the discrepancy of two invocations is not dispositive in this case, so we will use Arce’s number moving forward.

[4] Though we make our decision on preservation grounds, it appears the State is correct that a witness cannot testify about a subject and later invoke a Fifth Amendment privilege in order to avoid cross-examination on that same topic. See Mitchell v. United States, 526 U.S. 314, 321 (1999); In re Flint Water Cases, 53 F.4th 176, 193 (6th Cir. 2022). This issue is addressed further below. See infra ¶ 36.

[5] The State argues that a valid claim of privilege “turns in part on the likelihood of future prosecution.” A witness may not “employ the privilege to avoid giving testimony that he simply would prefer not to give,” Roberts v. United States, 445 U.S. 552, 560 n.7 (1980); instead, the witness must face real—not remote or speculative—dangers, Zicarelli v. New Jersey State Comm’n of Investigation, 406 U.S. 472, 478 (1972). Therefore, a grant of immunity nullifies the witness’s privilege as it forecloses the possibility of subsequent prosecution. State v. Morris, 2017 UT App 112, ¶ 18, 400 P.3d 1183, cert. denied, 409 P.3d 1049 (Utah 2017). Here, the State argues that while it did withdraw the written immunity offer, the offer was “irrelevant” as the State put on the record several times that it would not seek to have the court hold Wife in contempt for refusing to testify. We do not agree and fail to understand how a promise not to seek to have a trial court hold Wife in contempt is sufficient to rise to the level of granting her “effective blanket immunity,” as the State argues. Wife still faced the very real danger of prosecution for perjury, for which the State offered her no protection. Thus, the State did not provide Wife with immunity—either written or through promises not to charge her with contempt—and Wife’s Fifth Amendment privilege remained intact. However, the State is likely correct that the right had been waived for subjects about which she freely had already testified. And, as discussed, this issue was not preserved, so there is no need for further consideration of whether allowing the State to continue questioning Wife was an error and, if so, whether there was a reasonable likelihood of a more favorable outcome for Arce absent the questioning.

[6] Arce acknowledges that it was Wife’s counsel rather than his own who made the objection to Wife taking the stand knowing she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right. Despite this, Arce argues that the issue is preserved by primarily relying on Kell v. State, 2012 UT 25, 285 P.3d 1133. But Kell is distinguishable from the present case. In Kell, the question was whether an issue was preserved when the State opposed a criminal defendant’s rule 60(b) motion and the criminal defendant did not respond to the State’s arguments yet later sought to appeal the decision. Id. ¶¶ 9– 10. The State and a criminal defendant are not in an analogous adversarial position to the criminal defendant and nonparty witness, Wife, present here. Kell is simply inapposite.

[7] Arce does not claim the application of any exception to preservation.

[8] Arce points to State v. Bond, 2015 UT 88, 361 P.2d 104, for us to consider. But Bond is not particularly helpful here. The witness in Bond did not attempt to invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege to avoid answering a question regarding a subject about which he had testified previously. Id. ¶ 10Also, the analysis in Bond must be viewed in context. In Bond, the Utah Supreme Court was reviewing the denial of a motion for a mistrial—a trial court decision reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard—and an allegation of prosecutorial misconduct. Id. ¶¶ 13, 22. Thus, unlike the case before us, Bond does not address these issues as evidentiary rulings.

[9] We acknowledge that Arce has appended a transcript containing the invocations to his brief. But beyond the appendix, Arce’s brief makes no attempt to address the context of the invocations—referring to them only as a whole rather than providing any information as to the subject matter of the questioning that provoked them. Arce does not attempt to explain, for example, if one, two, or three questions might be permissible. Neither does he explain at which point the line would have been crossed to render his counsel’s inaction objectively unreasonable.

[10] “The cumulative-error doctrine requires us to reverse if (1) we determine, or assume without deciding, that two or more errors occurred and (2) we determine that the cumulative effect of those errors undermines our confidence that a fair trial was had.” ConocoPhillips Co. v. Utah Dep’t of Transp., 2017 UT App 68, ¶ 30, 397 P.3d 772.

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STATE OF UTAH, Appellee, v. K.S., Appellant. Opinion No. 20210291-CA Filed November 16, 2023 Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department The Honorable Mark W. May No. 1108274 Monica Maio, Marina Pena, Sam Pappas, and Hilary Forbush, Attorneys for Appellant Sean D. Reyes and Jeffrey S. Gray, Attorneys for Appellee JUDGE RYAN D. TENNEY authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER and DAVID N. MORTENSEN concurred.

TENNEY, Judge:

¶1        K.S., a minor, spent several weeks babysitting the infant child of some family members while they were at work. When the infant’s parents returned home one day, the infant was in pronounced distress. The infant was taken to the hospital, but she died a few days later.

¶2        K.S. was charged in juvenile court with having committed child abuse homicide. At the close of trial, the juvenile court found that K.S. had committed the crime and adjudicated K.S. delinquent as a result. K.S. now appeals that adjudication, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to support it. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm.


¶3        A.M., a four-month-old infant, died on May 10, 2019. Several medical experts later testified that the cause of death was a brain injury and that the fatal injury was likely inflicted in a non-accidental manner. The question at the heart of this case is who inflicted the fatal injury.

¶4        A.M.’s parents (Mother and Father) both worked and needed someone to watch their two children (A.M. and a two-year-old son) during the day. After an arrangement with a previous babysitter fell through, Mother and Father learned that K.S., the 16-year-old son of Mother’s cousin, was available to babysit. Although K.S. had no prior child-care experience, he began watching the children in April 2019. Because of K.S.’s lack of experience, Father had to teach him the basics of childcare, including how to prepare a bottle, how to change a diaper, and how to calm A.M. down and “hold her correctly.” K.S. frequently stayed overnight to save on gas, sleeping on a couch in the front room.

¶5        On May 2, Mother and Father took A.M. to the emergency room because A.M. had been sick for a few days. On examination, the ER doctor found “nothing worrisome,” and tests indicated that her heart rate, oxygen saturation, and temperature were all “reassuring.” The ER doctor concluded that A.M. “might have a bug” and sent her home. By May 6, A.M. seemed to be “feeling a little better.”

¶6        K.S. slept over at the house on the night of May 6 to 7, and A.M. was “real fussy” that night. According to her parents’ subsequent accounts, though, A.M. was “crying normal[ly]” and even “cheery, smiling, [and] glowing” by the next morning. Mother left for work by 9:30 a.m.[1] Father later testified that he left for work between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. (though, as will be discussed below, testimony from an officer suggested that Father didn’t actually leave until 10:55 that morning).

¶7        At some point between 11:36 and 11:56 a.m., K.S. sent Mother a video that showed A.M. experiencing troubling symptoms—specifically, A.M. had a limp arm and labored breathing. K.S. texted, “Is this normal?” After viewing the video, Mother asked her sister (Aunt) to stop by on her lunch break to check on A.M.

¶8        Aunt arrived at about 1:20 that afternoon. A.M. seemed “lethargic” to her, and it seemed like “moving her was upsetting her more, almost like it was causing her pain.” Aunt thought that A.M. might have an ear infection, so she gave her some ibuprofen. After returning to work, Aunt told Mother her concern about the ear infection and encouraged Mother to take A.M. to the hospital after Mother’s shift ended. During her own lunch break an hour later, Mother returned home and checked on A.M., who was “fussy and whiney”; when Mother picked A.M. up, she also observed her legs “dangling down.” Mother was concerned enough to schedule an appointment with a pediatrician, but she made lunch and returned to work without taking further action.

¶9        There was no additional contact between K.S. and the parents until around 7:45 that evening, when K.S. called Mother and reported that A.M still didn’t seem to be feeling better. Mother said she was on her way. After picking Father up from his work, Mother arrived home to find A.M. “pale as a light.” Father performed CPR while Mother called 911. Mother told the 911 dispatcher that A.M. had been “fine throughout the day and stuff.”

¶10 A.M. was first taken to the Intermountain Healthcare hospital, then life-flighted to Primary Children’s Medical Center (Primary Children’s). Doctors at Primary Children’s concluded that A.M. had suffered a severe brain injury.

¶11      Police detained Mother and Father for questioning before allowing them to see A.M. While awaiting the arrival of a detective, Father engaged police officers in light-hearted banter, telling them “a story about getting drunk and . . . dancing on the table,” as well as a story about a woman beating up a man in their apartment complex. Mother and Father eventually met with a detective who questioned them about the events of the day. This detective later testified that, during these interviews, Father told him that he had left for work around 10:55 that morning.

¶12      The following day, K.S. sent Father two text messages. The first said: “im so sorry. . . . if it weren’t for my laziness and wanting to relax [A.M.] wouldn’t be like this and if i had never tossed her up in the air to try and cheer her up.” The second said: “im truly sorry plz tell [Mother] im so so so sorry and i would never intentionally hurt your kids out of anger or frustration.”

¶13      A.M. died two days later. Later that week, Dr. Christensen, the medical examiner, performed an autopsy and determined that the “primary cause” of death was “blunt injuries” to A.M.’s head. Dr. Christensen classified the death as a homicide.

¶14 The State subsequently charged K.S. with child abuse homicide in juvenile court. Over the course of eight days of trial, the court heard testimony from, among others, both parents, several medical experts, and the responding officer.

¶15      Mother and Father testified about the events on May 7 and A.M.’s health in the relevant period. Mother testified that A.M. was “pretty fine” and “cheery, smiling, [and] glowing” before she left for work that morning. Father testified that, after a few days of being fussy, A.M. “was feeling a little better” and that there was “nothing out of the ordinary” that morning. Father testified that he remembered leaving home between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. so that he could catch the bus.

¶16 The court also heard testimony from three medical experts—Dr. Thorn, Dr. Hatch, and Dr. Christensen—about the nature of A.M.’s injuries and the timing of those injuries.

¶17 Dr. Thorn. Dr. Thorn was an ER doctor who had “extensive training and expertise specialization in the management of head injury,” and he was the doctor who treated A.M. on May 7 at the Intermountain Healthcare hospital. Dr. Thorn testified that A.M.’s symptoms likely resulted from “non-accidental trauma,” which “is a nice way of saying a child . . . was physically abused.” Dr. Thorn also testified that A.M.’s injuries would have required the application of “[e]xtremely violent” force, though he opined that it might have been “possible” that a person might not have “recognize[d] the severity” of the injury that he or she had inflicted.

¶18      On a CAT scan, Dr. Thorn observed two layers of blood in A.M.’s brain, which suggested to him that A.M. had sustained “at least two” discrete injuries. He estimated that the earlier of the two injuries occurred “within days” to “maybe a week” before May 7. Dr. Thorn speculated that the symptoms that prompted A.M.’s visit to the hospital on May 2 had come from the first brain injury, but he acknowledged that “[w]e’ll never know.” With respect to the injuries that led to A.M.’s death, Dr. Thorn testified that the “most severe injury leading eventually to the death” happened anywhere from “sometime within hours” to “almost right before” the video that was taken on May 7. He further testified that there was “some event soon before arrival [at the ER] that had caused” A.M.’s “respiratory depression.” Dr. Thorn felt unable to narrow the timeframe any further, and he expressed doubt that any doctor “would be able to comment as to a more definitive timeframe.” Dr. Thorn also testified that A.M. “was very, very sick at the time that that video was taken.”[2]

¶19 Dr. Hatch. Dr. Hatch was a recent medical school graduate who was completing a post-residency fellowship in child abuse pediatrics at the University of Utah, and he was part of the team that treated A.M. at Primary Children’s. Dr. Hatch testified that it would have required a significant amount of force to cause A.M.’s symptoms, such as “shaking by itself” or shaking combined “with some form of impact, or impact by itself.” He added that “we don’t observe these kinds of injuries from falls” or even from “significant” car accidents. In Dr. Hatch’s view, A.M.’s symptoms “suggest[ed]” that A.M. had “experienced significant force to her head.” He also opined that anyone who was present when the injuries were inflicted “would know that the force was excessive and that an injury was likely” to follow.

¶20 Dr. Hatch thought there were two potentially plausible explanations for the two layers of blood in A.M.’s brain: he thought it was possible that the blood represented two different injuries that were separated by time, and he also thought it was possible that the blood represented a single injury where some of the blood had changed colors when it mingled with cerebral spinal fluid. Thus, in Dr. Hatch’s opinion, A.M. was definitely injured on May 7, and it was possible that she had suffered an earlier brain injury as well.

¶21      As to the question of timing of the May 7 injury, Dr. Hatch testified that “the head injury immediately preceded the development of any symptoms that [A.M.] had. So in this situation where she became unconscious, the injury would immediately precede that.” Continuing, Dr. Hatch testified that the “medical literature would support that in almost all cases with this severe of an injury,” the resulting symptoms would appear “immediately afterward.”

¶22 Dr. Christensen. Dr. Christensen is the chief medical examiner for the Utah Department of Health and, as noted, performed A.M.’s autopsy. Dr. Christensen testified that A.M. had suffered a “traumatic” “axonal injury” to her brain and that the injury was “not consistent with having occurred accidentally.” In his view, the force involved would have been “noticeably violent.”

¶23      Like Dr. Thorn, Dr. Christensen saw signs of both an earlier and a later injury. Dr. Christensen agreed that “some of [A.M.’s] prior symptoms”—including the nausea that led to her May 2 visit to the hospital—could have been “related to a prior head injury.” On questioning from the State, however, Dr. Christensen seemed to agree that the later injury was “the ultimately fatal” one.

¶24      Dr. Christensen testified that in “some cases,” fatal injuries can be inflicted as many as three to ten days before the child actually dies. But Dr. Christensen explained that doctors look to “other aspects of the case as well” when estimating the time at which the injuries were inflicted, such as “what was the child’s behavior at various points along the way.” He said that in this case, he thought the fatal injury “occurred around the time” that A.M. arrived at the hospital. He also testified that with “traumatic axonal injury, you would expect [A.M.] to be symptomatic essentially immediately. I mean very, very quickly. It’s not going to be the kind of thing where she is going to be normal for a few hours . . . . It’s a global insult to the brain that is going to manifest as . . . abnormal behavior very soon after infliction.”

¶25      After the conclusion of the trial, the court entered a single-sentence ruling determining that the State had met its burden of proving that K.S. committed child abuse homicide. K.S. timely appealed.


¶26      K.S. argues there was insufficient evidence to support his adjudication for child abuse homicide. In cases tried without a jury (which include juvenile court proceedings), factual determinations “must not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and the reviewing court must give due regard to the trial court’s opportunity to judge the credibility of the witnesses.” Utah R. Civ. P. 52(a)(4); cf. In re Z.D., 2006 UT 54, ¶ 29, 147 P.3d 401 (holding that an “appellate court must launch any review of factual findings from rule 52(a) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure and its ‘clearly erroneous’ test”). “The content of Rule 52(a)’s clearly erroneous standard, imported from the federal rule, requires that if the findings (or the trial court’s verdict in a criminal case) are against the clear weight of the evidence, or if the appellate court otherwise reaches a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made, the findings (or verdict) will be set aside.” State v. Walker, 743 P.2d 191, 193 (Utah 1987) (quotation simplified).

¶27 The parties agree that we should apply the above-cited standard of review to this case. We pause here to note, however, that the parties have disputed whether we should apply an additional layer of deferential gloss in this case as well.

¶28 It’s well-settled that when an appellate court reviews a jury’s verdict, the court views the evidence and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the verdict. See, e.g.State v. Green, 2023 UT 10, n.2, 532 P.3d 930; State v. Bonds, 2023 UT 1, n.3, 524 P.3d 581; State v. Winfield, 2006 UT 4, ¶ 2, 128 P.3d 1171. But there’s a divergence in Utah’s caselaw about whether an appellate court does the same when reviewing a verdict from a bench trial. On this, some Utah cases say no. See, e.g.In re Z.D., 2006 UT 54, ¶ 35 (“An appellate court must indulge findings of fact made by a jury that support the verdict. No such indulgence is required of findings made by a judge.”); Alta Indus. Ltd. v. Hurst, 846 P.2d 1282, 1284 n.2 (Utah 1993) (holding that “an appellate court does not, as a matter of course, resolve all conflicts in the evidence in favor of the appellee” when findings were made by a judge); Walker, 743 P.2d at 193 (noting that “it is not accurate to say that the appellate court takes that view of the evidence that is most favorable to the appellee” when reviewing findings of the court (quotation simplified)). But other Utah cases—including some from our court that reviewed adjudications from juvenile court delinquency proceedings—say yes. See, e.g.State v. Layman, 1999 UT 79, ¶¶ 12–13, 985 P.2d 911 (holding that when “reviewing a conviction, an appellate court should consider the facts in a light most favorable to the verdict,” and then applying that standard to a ruling from “the trial judge, who was the finder of fact” in the bench trial at issue); In re J.R.H., 2020 UT App 155, ¶ 9, 478 P.3d 56 (applying the “light most favorable” standard to a juvenile court adjudication (quotation simplified)); In re V.T., 2000 UT App 189, ¶ 8, 5 P.3d 1234 (relying on Layman for the proposition that “[w]hen reviewing a juvenile court’s decision for sufficiency of the evidence, we must consider all the facts, and all reasonable inferences which may be drawn therefrom, in a light most favorable to the juvenile court’s determination”); see also In re C.C.R., 2011 UT App 228, ¶ 10, 257 P.3d 1106; In re M.B., 2008 UT App 433, ¶ 5, 198 P.3d 1007.

¶29      We need not resolve this conflict here. Again, the parties at least agree that K.S. can only prevail on his sufficiency challenge if he establishes that the verdict was against the clear weight of the evidence, or, instead, if we reach a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. And the parties further agree that we give “due regard” to the juvenile court’s opportunity to “judge the credibility of witnesses.” Utah R. Civ. P. 52(a)(4). For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the juvenile court’s adjudication under these agreed-upon standards alone. We accordingly leave for another day (and, more likely, another court) the question of how to resolve the tension in the cases about whether the additional deferential gloss that applies to jury verdicts should apply to juvenile court decisions as well.


¶30      K.S. argues there was “insufficient evidence that [he], as opposed to someone else, caused the injuries that resulted in A.M.’s death.” We disagree.

¶31      The State’s case against K.S. relied on the interplay between three propositions: (i) A.M. died from an injury to her brain that was caused by violent force; (ii) A.M.’s symptoms would have manifested very quickly after the injury was inflicted; and (iii) K.S. was alone with A.M. immediately prior to the symptoms’ initial appearance. There was competent testimony to support each of these propositions.

¶32 Injury. All three medical experts agreed that A.M. died from a brain injury that was caused by violent force. Dr. Thorn testified that A.M.’s injury would have been caused by “[e]xtremely violent” force or a “violent, blunt act,” such as the “shaking back and forth of a child’s brain.” In his view, this was “not an accidentally dropped child.” Dr. Hatch similarly testified that a significant amount of force would have been required, either “shaking by itself,” or shaking combined “with some form of impact,” or “impact by itself.” He added that doctors “don’t observe these kinds of injuries from falls” or even from “significant” car accidents. Dr. Hatch believed anyone “who witnessed an incident like this occur would know that the force was excessive and that an injury was likely” to follow. Finally, Dr. Christensen testified that the injury was “not consistent with having occurred accidentally” and that the force involved would have been “noticeably violent.”

¶33 Timing of symptoms. There was also testimony from medical experts that A.M.’s symptoms would have manifested very quickly after the force that caused the fatal injury. Dr. Hatch testified that “the head injury immediately preceded the development of any symptoms that [A.M.] had” and that the “medical literature would support that in almost all cases with this severe of an injury,” the resulting symptoms would appear “immediately afterward.” Dr. Christensen similarly testified that with “traumatic axonal injury, you would expect [A.M.] to be symptomatic essentially immediately.” He added: “It’s not going to be the kind of thing where she is going to be normal for a few hours . . . . It’s a global insult to the brain that is going to manifest as . . . abnormal behavior very soon after infliction.”[3]

¶34 K.S. was alone with A.M. Finally, there was testimony establishing that K.S. was alone with A.M. immediately before the symptoms’ initial appearance. Mother and Father both testified that A.M. was in good health that morning. Father stated that after a few days of being fussy, A.M. was “feeling a little better” and that there was “nothing out of the ordinary.” Mother also testified that A.M. was “cheery, smiling, [and] glowing” that morning.

¶35      Mother left for work by 9:30 a.m., and at trial, Father testified that he left for work between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. (though there was some suggestion that he may have left at 10:55 a.m.). At some point between 11:36 and 11:56 that morning, K.S. sent Mother a video showing A.M. with limp limbs and having difficulty breathing.

¶36      The collective import of these propositions is clear. Since K.S. was alone with A.M. for at least a half hour (if not several hours) before A.M.’s symptoms appeared, and since two medical experts testified that A.M.’s symptoms would have appeared very quickly (if not immediately) after the infliction of the injury, it stands to reason that K.S. caused the fatal injury. This would provide a basis to sustain the adjudication.[4]

¶37 K.S. nevertheless argues that there was insufficient evidence to support the adjudication because of various problems with the above evidence and with other aspects of the State’s case. While we certainly agree that there was conflicting evidence on certain points, the problems that K.S. identifies are not so conclusive that we can overturn the adjudication as a result.

¶38      Much of K.S.’s argument is focused on ambiguities in the record about the critical question of timing. K.S. points out that while Dr. Christensen opined that the symptoms likely manifested soon after the injury, Dr. Christensen also acknowledged that “those things”—apparently meaning medical conclusions about the time at which an injury occurred—“are not precise.” K.S. also relies heavily on Dr. Thorn’s testimony that the injury could have occurred anywhere from “almost right before” the symptoms appeared to “hours” earlier. And K.S. further points to Dr. Thorn’s testimony that he didn’t think “you could find anyone else that would be able to comment as to a more definitive timeframe.”

¶39 But when Dr. Thorn opined that he didn’t think that “anyone else” could provide “a more definitive timeframe,” Dr. Thorn was mistaken. As discussed, the State called two medical experts—Dr. Christensen and Dr. Hatch—who each testified under oath that they thought that A.M.’s symptoms would have appeared very quickly (if not immediately) after the fatal injury was inflicted. And to the extent that there was any conflict between the experts’ conclusions on this, the juvenile court was in a better position than we are to determine which version to believe. See, e.g.In re M.M., 2023 UT App 95, ¶ 35 n.9, 536 P.3d 102, petition for cert. filed, October 25, 2023 (No. 20230944) (recognizing that it “is the role of the juvenile court, not this court, to assess the weight and credibility of expert witnesses and to choose among their testimonies” (quotation simplified)); Knowlton v. Knowlton, 2023 UT App 16, ¶ 59 n.13, 525 P.3d 898 (noting that a trial court “is in the superior position to assess the weight of evidence,” including questions about which expert’s testimony to accept), cert. denied, 531 P.3d 730 (Utah 2023); Woodward v. Lafranca, 2016 UT App 141, ¶ 13, 381 P.3d 1125 (noting that a “fact-finder is in the best position to judge the credibility of witnesses and is free to disbelieve their testimony, even if that testimony comes from an expert witness” (quotation simplified)).

¶40      K.S. also points to testimony showing that Mother left for work by 9:30 a.m., as well as testimony that Father told a detective that he didn’t leave until 10:55 that morning. Since K.S. maintains that the window in which the injury could have been inflicted was several hours long, K.S. posits that Mother or Father could have inflicted the injury before they left for work. But again, on the question of timing, Dr. Christensen and Dr. Hatch both spoke of symptoms appearing very quickly after the fatal injury was inflicted. This testimony, alone, undermines this theory, and the juvenile court was entitled to credit it.

¶41 And there are other problems with this theory too. After all, K.S.’s suggestion that Mother or Father caused the injury that morning or overnight is at odds with their sworn testimonies. Again, both of them testified under oath that A.M. was healthy when they left the house. And it also seems possible (if not probable) that K.S. would have noticed something if Mother or Father had used violent force against A.M. that morning—after all, he’d spent the night there and was at the house all morning. But K.S. never claimed to have heard or witnessed either parent injuring A.M. earlier that day. Thus, to have accepted this theory, the court would have had to discredit the injury-to-symptoms chronology testimony of two medical experts, disbelieve the testimonies of Mother and Father, and then infer that Mother or Father had used violent force against A.M. without K.S. noticing or deciding to comment on it.

¶42 K.S. also points to evidence suggesting that A.M. had sustained a prior brain injury sometime before May 7, and he then argues that this prior injury might have been responsible for A.M.’s death. But while Dr. Christensen and Dr. Thorn both believed that A.M. had suffered multiple injuries, Dr. Hatch thought it was possible that there weren’t two injuries at all. Regardless, even assuming that the earlier injury did occur, K.S. could have inflicted that injury too given that he’d been babysitting for weeks. And more to the point, Dr. Christensen testified that the earlier injury wasn’t the cause of death. Dr. Christensen explained that both the earlier injury and the later injury had caused “subdural hemorrhage[s]” but that a subdural hemorrhage “didn’t ultimately lead directly to the child’s death.” Instead, Dr. Christensen testified that “diffuse axonal injury” in the brainstem created “respiratory compromise” that led to “brain swelling and ultimately death.” And when the prosecutor asked Dr. Christensen whether the “fatal” or “ultimately fatal” injury occurred close in time to A.M. arriving at the hospital, Dr. Christensen agreed with the State’s timeline. He reiterated that after the infliction of the “traumatic axonal injury,” which he had previously identified as the ultimate cause of death, symptoms would appear “essentially immediately.”[5]

¶43                Finally, K.S. points to various problems with the version of

events offered by Mother and Father, including Mother’s decision not to take the baby to the hospital that afternoon, Father’s seemingly odd storytelling while waiting for detectives that night, and certain discrepancies between the parents’ initial statements to officers and their testimonies at trial. We’ve reviewed the record and acknowledge the potential problems identified by K.S. But these problems all go to the perceived credibility (or lack thereof) of Mother and Father, particularly as it relates to their sworn testimonies that they did not injure their child. Our supreme court, however, has directly cautioned the appellate courts to avoid second-guessing lower courts about credibility issues like these. As the court explained in In re Z.D.:

Appellate courts are removed temporally and geographically from trial courts. They do not see juries impaneled or oaths administered to witnesses. They do not view first-hand witnesses’ “tells” of posture, inflection, or mood that strengthen or erode credibility. It is the lot of appellate judges to take their sustenance from the printed page; to peer into the facts as deeply as the flat plane of paper will permit. By the time the trial transcript reaches the hands of the appellate judge, the universal adjective describing its condition is “cold.”

2006 UT 54, ¶ 24, 147 P.3d 401. It’s of course possible that the court could have chosen to disbelieve the testimonies of Mother and Father. But given its adjudication, it’s clear that the court did accept their accounts (or, at least, those portions that suggested that it was K.S., not Mother or Father, who inflicted the fatal injury on A.M.). Without something more, it’s not our place to second-guess that determination.

¶44      In short, this evidentiary picture could certainly have been clearer, and we do see this as something of a close case. But the fact that it’s a close case is the reason we shouldn’t overturn this adjudication. In In re Z.D., our supreme court stressed that an “appellate court must be capable of discriminating between discomfort over a trial court’s findings of fact—which it must tolerate—and those that require the court’s intercession. It must forebear disturbing the ‘close call.’” Id. ¶ 33. And again, under even the standard of review that both parties agree on, K.S. must convince us that the verdict was against “the clear weight of the evidence,” or, instead, we must be left with “a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.” State v. Walker, 743 P.2d 191, 193 (Utah 1987) (emphases added, quotations otherwise simplified).

¶45      On this record, the juvenile court could have sided with K.S. based on certain evidence about the timing of the injuries and who was around A.M. during a potentially relevant window. But the State’s narrower view of the timing window was backed by two medical experts, and its view of who was where and when was backed by sworn testimony as well. And under the State’s evidence, K.S. was the only person who could have caused the fatal injury.

¶46      Unlike members of this court, the juvenile court observed the relevant testimony firsthand. As a result, it was in a better position than we are to evaluate the credibility of that testimony and make determinations about the key facts. While K.S. has highlighted some problems with the State’s case, we don’t see those problems as being so pronounced that the court’s decision was against the clear weight of the evidence, nor are we left with a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made. We accordingly see no basis for overturning this adjudication.


¶47 There was sufficient evidence to support the juvenile court’s adjudication that K.S. committed child abuse homicide. The adjudication is therefore affirmed.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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How to Avoid Being Called a Liar in a Utah Case By Braxton Mounteer

Who would you believe more in a court case: a person who admits to his/her faults, who honestly discloses all of his/her relevant information (even the information that hurts his/her case), and answered questions with “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” or a person who lied (even if just a couple times)?

One of the worst things to happen in a divorce case is for your credibility to come into question. If the court finds you lied about just one matter, it can cite that one lie as reason not to believe you on virtually all matters.

Simply put, to avoid damaging your credibility, always be truthful. This should be obvious, but I am amazed at how often clients of the firm I work for try to get away with lying (and how often they try to get away with lying about stuff that doesn’t really matter anyway, but I digress). The truth is learned and established by facts that are proven to be facts by the evidence in support of those facts. Your judge will not care much, if at all, about how you feel he or she should rule, the judge is (or should be) guided by the truth, by the facts, and then apply the law according to what the facts are.

To ensure your credibility is not questioned, admit when you are wrong. If you try to bend the truth about your sins and mistake or conceal the truth about them, you are a liar. Try to justify it any way you like, lying is lying. Whether by commission (expressly lying) or omission (withholding the whole truth, selectively disclosing the facts, shading the truth, spin, you get the idea), it’s all lying. While there are some situations in which you are not obligated to tell the truth about crime or possible crime you have committed (see the Fifth Amendment), questions of and risk of being convicted of crimes doesn’t arise very often in divorce cases. Honesty is the best policy.

I am amazed at how often client fail to understand that they lose credibility when they provide us with inaccurate information. While you may not be able to remember everything regarding your finances or your personal and family history, that doesn’t give you a license to fudge your answers or give incomplete answers. The “I didn’t understand” and “I don’t recall” excuses don’t inspire confidence in your credibility. They have just the opposite effect; they make you look lazy, scheming, and dishonest. Honest people are not forgetful people. Honest people aren’t afraid to produce their bank statements (all of them). Honest people aren’t afraid to disclose that side job. If you claim to have few or no records of things that normal people usually have records for, the default conclusion is that you have something to hide. While there are limits on what the opposing party can ask of you, when what they request complies with the rules, then answer questions completely and with complete honesty, produce all of the documents that are discoverable. Even if what you answer and what you produce may expose some of your flaws, it will also reveal you as honest and believable.

Once it’s damaged, credibility is hard to repair. Better never to do anything to call your credibility into doubt. Be honest. It’s the right thing to do, and if doing the right thing isn’t enough motivation for you, honesty tends to be the better “strategy” than lying and deception.

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Am I held to what I said first as a witness, even if I immediately corrected my mistake once I realized it?

It is not merely a question of how quickly the witness corrects his or her answer.

Sometimes a lawyer will ask a witness for precise details simply not because those details crucial to resolving a particular issue but simply because the more details a witness recalls the more the judge or jury may believe the witness has a particularly good memory and can thus be trusted that much more.

If the case depends upon whether an event did or did not take place on a Monday (or a Thursday), and the witness knows that, then a witness can damage his/her credibility by giving contradictory responses to the question. Unfortunately, even if it’s an honest oversight or slip of the tongue, the higher the stakes, the less tolerance there is for errors.

Still, it is better to correct what you stated in error than to stick to a false story to—ironically—avoid looking like a liar. to borrow from Mark Twain, better to tell the truth and risk being branded a liar than to bear false witness knowingly and thus remove all doubt.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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Are family members allowed to be character witnesses in a divorce case?

Questions regarding one’s character as a spouse and parent often arise in a divorce and/or child custody case, and family members are often some of the best, if not the best, character witnesses on subjects that frequently arise in divorce and child custody cases. What kinds of questions? For example, questions about a party’s parental fitness and character may because family members are often the most percipient witnesses, meaning they are those who have observed a party as a parent most often, most accurately, and most reliably.

As you might have guessed, one of the reasons that family members are not seen as the best witnesses generally (whether a fact witness or character witness) is because there will always be a question of whether your mom or dear uncle Milt is a reliable source of accurate information about you, as opposed to being someone who will propagandize for you irrespective of the truth. It’s not unreasonable to presume that a family member might choose loyalty to you over being completely honest about you.

Sometimes, a family member may be your best, even your only, witness on a particular issue. So, if you aren’t afraid that your family member has dirt on you, and if you trust that your family member will both be honest and come across as honest, don’t write off a family member as a witness merely for being a family member.

Some people confuse a character witness with “a witness who will say things that are helpful to my case, so that the court will side with me.” It’s understandable if someone who is not an attorney believes that a divorce or child custody case is a popularity contest, but it’s not. If your witness doesn’t have believable testimony to give on a relevant issue, you shouldn’t call that witness to testify. For example, if you were to bring in any witness, family member or otherwise, to say that generally your spouse is mean and therefore should be treated harshly when it comes to dividing marital assets, such witness testimony is not only totally irrelevant evidence, but wasteful of court time and thus very irritating to the judge. Additionally, bringing in a dozen character witnesses to say the same thing about your character or the character of your spouse is unnecessarily cumulative and the court would almost certainly not permit a dozen witnesses to say duplicative things when one or two, maybe three witnesses would suffice.

Sometimes, your attorney may advise you not to call a family member as a witness to protect you from having that family member intentionally or inadvertently say things about you that paint you in a bad light. Sometimes, your attorney may advise you not to call a family member as a witness because you are unsure of what the witness would say or you know that the family member is a chatterbox who doesn’t know when to shut up.

Bottom line: 1) family members are not barred from being character witnesses; 2) family members are often the best or among the best of your character witnesses; 3) don’t be afraid to utilize family members as character witnesses, as long as they will come across as credible witnesses who won’t intentionally or inadvertently say damaging things about you; and 4) avoid poisoning the opinion of the court against you by ensuring that you do not call “character witnesses” to testify on subjects and issues that have nothing to do with your or your spouse’s character.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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What would you do if your child’s father who is only entitled to supervised visitation filed for a modification of a court order so a family member you don’t approve of could supervise visits?

What would you do if your child’s father who is only entitled to supervised visitation filed for a modification of a court order so a family member you don’t approve of could supervise visits?

Here’s what I would do:

First, remember that merely claiming that the proposed visitation supervisor poses a clear and serious danger to the child’s mental or emotional health without having proof or some highly credible evidence does not simply make for a weak argument, it could call your credibility into question.

  • I would first ask: if you have proof or highly credible evidence that there anything about this proposed visitation supervisor that poses a clear and factual (or at least credible) danger to the child’s life, safety, or health.
    • If the answer is “yes,” then you probably have at least one very good argument against having this person approved as a visitation supervisor.
  • If the answer is “no,” then I would ask if there anything about this proposed visitation supervisor that poses a clear and factual (or at least credible) danger to the life, safety, or health of the other parent or of anyone else?
    • If the answer is “yes,” then you probably have at least one very good argument against having this person approved as a visitation supervisor.
  • If the answer is “no,” then I would ask: if there anything about this proposed visitation supervisor that poses a clear and factual (or at least credible) danger to the child’s mental or emotional health?
    • If the answer is “yes,” then you probably have at least one very good argument against having this person approved as a visitation supervisor.
  • If the answer is “no,” then I would ask if there is anything about this proposed visitation supervisor that poses a clear and factual (or at least credible) danger to the mental or emotional health of the other parent or of anyone else?
    • If the answer is “yes,” then you probably have at least one very good argument against having this person approved as a visitation supervisor.
  • If the answer is “no,” then I would ask if there is anything about the proposed supervisor that indicates he/she is not available to provide supervision as needed and/or cannot provide supervision responsibly and reliably.
    • If the answer is “yes,” then you probably have at least one very good argument against having this person approved as a visitation supervisor.
  • If the answer is “no,” then I would likely see no point to objecting to the proposed supervisor because I would have no valid argument against the appointment of this supervisor.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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Can the other parent send someone I’ve never met to pickups and drop-offs for our child?

Can the other parent send someone I’ve never met to pickups and drop-offs for our child?

Can the other parent send someone I’ve never met to pickups and drop-offs for our child when custody order only lists the parents? What would I file with the court to contest this? Would the court just add that person to the order?

Before I address your questions, I suggest you honestly examine the bases for your concerns. Are you honestly worried about this situation, or do you see an opportunity to denigrate your ex and make trouble for your ex in court?

So you’re asking at least three questions here.

First, can the other parent send someone you have never met to pick up or drop off your child when the court’s order states identifies no one other than the parents as the ones who pick up and drop off the child for custody and parent-time exchanges? The answer: If the order can be interpreted or construed to provide that the parents certainly can pick up and drop off, but that permission or authorization to pick up or drop off the child is not limited solely to the parents, then a parent can have someone else to pick up or drop off the child. On the other hand, if the order can be interpreted or construed to provide that permission or authorization to pick up or drop off the child is restricted solely to the parents, then you could argue that if one of the parents fails to pick up or drop off the child personally and instead sends someone else to pick up or drop off the child, that parent is violating the court’s order.

Your next question was: what would I file with the court to contest this? Well, obviously if the court order allows for persons other than the parents to pick up or drop off the child, there would be little point to complaining to the court about it unless you could demonstrate that the person or people the other parent is designating to pick up or drop off the child is harming, attempting to harm, or threatening to harm the child in some significant way.

If the court order prohibits persons other than the parents to pick up or drop off the child, you are wise to ask whether it’s worth the time, effort, hassle, risk, and money to do so if all the other parent is likely to do is file a motion or petition to authorize people other than the parents to pick up or drop off the child. If there is no statute in your jurisdiction that prohibits persons other than parents to facilitate custody or parent-time pickups and drop-offs, if the parent can show that he or she has a legitimate need for the help with pickups and drop offs, and if the person or persons who are not parents but who are picking up or dropping off the child is or are responsible adults who are doing a good job with pickups and drop-offs and doing neither the child nor the parent any harm, you need to ask yourself whether complaining to the court is fair and reasonable for you to do. If the only reason you want to complain is because you like to stir the pot and/or try to cause your ex trouble with the court, you should re-think that position.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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State v. Rivera – 2019 UT App 188 – child abuse

2019 UT App 188 – State v. Rivera



No. 20180546-CA
Filed November 21, 2019

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department
The Honorable Todd M. Shaughnessy
No. 161908011

Teresa L. Welch, Maren E. Larson, and Heidi Buchi, Attorneys for Appellant
Sean D. Reyes and Thomas B. Brunker, Attorneys for Appellee

JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES JILL M. POHLMAN and DIANA HAGEN concurred.


¶1        A jury convicted Oyah Tongson Rivera on three counts of child abuse. The abuse involved Rivera repeatedly using pliers to pinch her three stepchildren. Physical examinations revealed scarring and cuts all over the children’s bodies. All three children told doctors, investigators, and others that Rivera inflicted the injuries. In later statements before and at trial, the children recanted. The jury nevertheless found Rivera guilty. We affirm.


¶2        In June 2016, three siblings—K.S., a boy age 12; F.S., a boy age 10; and H.S., a girl age 8—told their father (Father) that Rivera, their stepmother, had been abusing them.[2] The children told Father that when Rivera got angry with them, she would call them into her room, pull a pair of pliers out of a drawer, and pinch them repeatedly all over their bodies. After seeing the marks and learning that Rivera had forced K.S. and F.S. to beat H.S. the day before, Father consulted his attorney, who took the family to a YWCA. The YWCA called the police.

The Investigation

¶3        Police officers performed a welfare check at the house where the children were being cared for by their seventy-year-old, ill grandfather. The officers could see that the children had marks, scars, and cuts—some readily visible and some under their clothing—all over their bodies. The officers also saw large bruises on the sides of H.S.’s face. They then contacted Father and brought him to his house. Rivera was arrested that night.

¶4        The next morning, Father brought the children to meet with Child Protective Services (CPS) for initial interviews. CPS determined that the grandfather was not healthy enough to have caused the injuries. CPS also investigated Father by interviewing him on multiple occasions and repeatedly checking in on the children outside Father’s presence to verify their safety.

¶5        A few days later, a child abuse pediatrician (Doctor) conducted a physical examination of each child. As part of the exams, Doctor took a medical history. Each child separately told Doctor that Rivera had inflicted the marks on their bodies by using pliers to pinch them on multiple occasions. Specifically, K.S. told Doctor that the pinching occurred “once or twice a week” over the previous eight months. K.S. explained that when “something bad would go on inside [Rivera’s] head,” she would pinch them with the pliers. Doctor also observed scarring and cuts all over the children’s bodies, including on their arms, hands, chest, stomach, back, legs, and genitalia.[3]

¶6        In summarizing her conclusions of the physical exams, Doctor stated,

These three children gave a history of abusive behavior by their [step]mother, plier marks and scratches. They had multiple marks consistent with this. And I concluded that the marks were abusive in nature. I felt that was physical abuse and psychological abuse because this was repeated over time, both according to the history. And on physical [examination], we can say that there was more than one episode of abuse. I think that that’s psychologically bad because . . . these actions are akin to torture. And they would anticipate that it might happen again. I also feel that the boys being forced to hit [their sister], according to the history, is psychologically damaging.

¶7        A few days later, the children were each interviewed individually by a detective (Detective) at the Children’s Justice Center (CJC). K.S. told Detective that Rivera scratched, kicked, punched, and slapped the children, stating, “She does the same thing every time she gets angry. She slaps us, kicks us, [and] pinches us with pliers.” He also described other punishments: being hit in the head with a can of food; being beaten with a wooden ladle; having a water mug broken on his head; and being forced to kneel on uncooked rice, peas, and peppercorns while holding books in his outstretched arms. Finally, K.S. described an incident where Rivera ordered him and F.S. to punch H.S. for not reading the dictionary loudly enough.

¶8        F.S. recounted many of the same details at his separate CJC interview. He said Rivera pinched him with pliers or her fingernails when he did “the same mistake all over again and again” or when he did not “take responsibility when she’s not . . . around.” F.S. also revealed that Rivera ordered him and K.S. to punch H.S. in the face and torso.

¶9        In her CJC interview, H.S. revealed that Rivera pinched her with pliers all over her body, including her legs, her stomach, her arms, her torso, and her shoulders. When asked why Rivera pinched her with pliers, H.S. stated, “[B]ecause I never learn and I never talk to her and I never ask her, I never told her the things that I am doing . . . . I only say I will learn, I will learn, I will ask, I will ask, I will talk to her. And then I never do it. I forget.” H.S. also recounted the incident when Rivera ordered K.S. and F.S. to punch and slap her for failing to read the dictionary loudly enough.

¶10 When interviewed by CPS, Rivera admitted to “pinching [H.S.] with the pliers one time” and pinching K.S. “with her acrylic nails” as disciplinary punishment. Rivera complained that she was frustrated because Father was cheating on her, Father forced her to have sex, and she had to take care of the children—including homeschooling them—even though she was just their stepmother.

¶11 Later, when asked by Detective about the marks and bruises on the children, Rivera stated that “she wasn’t the only one that did this to the children.” She told Detective that she had “used force, like hurt [the children] physically, just so they obey me.” But she also expressed remorse, saying, “I know this is bad because I hurt them, but it’s not like I’m doing it for fun . . . . I don’t want to abuse the children.” However, Rivera refused to answer Detective’s questions about whether she ever used pliers to pinch the children. Regarding the dictionary incident, Rivera told an officer that K.S. is “the big brother. I don’t have to hurt [H.S.]—don’t have to hurt them. Let [K.S.] do it.” Finally, Rivera told Detective, “The incident that happened with [H.S.] . . . I was ready to surrender . . . . This is the worst thing I’ve ever [done].”

¶12 About two years later in April 2018, Doctor reevaluated the children shortly before the trial. Many of the marks had cleared; and although some remained, there was no indication of new injury from abuse. However, the children offered a different explanation to Doctor for the marks on their bodies from what they had told her two years earlier. H.S. told Doctor that Rivera was going to leave, so the children inflicted the injuries on each other “to make her feel sorry for them so she wouldn’t leave.” K.S. told Doctor the same thing: “We made up that [Rivera] did it, but really she was going to leave and we did it to ourselves so that she would feel sad for us and she would stay.”[4] F.S. told Doctor substantially the same story about the source of the injuries. When Doctor confronted him about the disparity, F.S. replied, “I never said that.” In her trial testimony, Doctor confirmed that it is not uncommon for children to recant allegations of abuse.

The Trial

¶13 At trial, the children repeated that they had caused the injuries to themselves. They explained that because Rivera and Father were constantly fighting, they feared Rivera was going to leave and reasoned that once she saw their injuries, she would feel sorry for them and stay. But much of the children’s testimony at trial conflicted. For example, K.S. said they came up with the plan to blame Rivera for the injuries when the police arrived, but he was unable to explain how they communicated their plan to each other on such short notice. F.S. said that the three children sat down and talked over the plan before the police arrived. With regard to coming up with the plan to pinch themselves, K.S. testified that he and H.S. formulated the idea in their bedroom and later told F.S. about it. F.S. testified that the three hatched the plan together in the living room. H.S. said K.S. made up the plan and told her and F.S. about it.

¶14 The children’s trial testimony was also significantly inconsistent with regard to how they received the injuries. Among these pervasive inconsistencies, K.S. testified that he alone pinched his own arms and stomach, but earlier he said F.S. had caused some of his pinch marks. F.S. testified that he didn’t want to pinch himself because he knew it would hurt, so he asked his brother to do it for him. But he later said that he pinched himself.

¶15 Rivera faced three counts of child abuse, one count of witness tampering, and one count of assault.[5] After the State closed its case-in-chief, Rivera moved for a directed verdict based on insufficiency of the evidence on all counts. Citing State v. Robbins, 2009 UT 23, 210 P.3d 288, Rivera argued that the “prosecution can’t be said to have proven their case beyond a reasonable doubt, because there [was] so much variance and differing between the testimony of all of [the witnesses] regarding what happened and who actually did what they did.” The district court granted the motion with respect to the counts for witness tampering and assault but denied it for the counts of child abuse.

¶16 Rivera then testified, denying that she ever pinched the children with pliers, forced them to hit each other, or made them kneel on objects. She also said that she first saw injuries on the children via Skype when she lived in the Philippines and they lived in Bahrain with Father. She said she went to Bahrain to be with the children because they were “reaching out” to her and because she believed they were being “tortured.” She testified that she agreed to marry Father because he said he could help her get a U.S. visa.

¶17      Father also testified at trial. He acknowledged that he had cheated on Rivera, but he denied ever hitting, biting, or using fingernails or pliers to pinch the children. Rivera’s son testified that he had seen Father discipline the children in Bahrain by slapping their faces and lifting them by their shirts. Rivera’s sister testified that she saw Father drop H.S. on a couch and “bit[e] her butt.”

¶18      The jury convicted Rivera of three counts of child abuse. Rivera appeals.


¶19 The sole issue on appeal is whether there was sufficient evidence to convict Rivera of child abuse where the three children testified at trial that Rivera had not pinched them, contradicting some of their pretrial statements, in which they stated that she had. Rivera argues that this lack of consistency between trial testimony and pretrial statements creates a situation in which the accusations against her are “too inherently improbable to support the verdict.” “When a jury verdict is challenged on the ground that the evidence is insufficient, we review the evidence and all inferences which may reasonably be drawn from it in the light most favorable to the verdict.” State v. Hirschi, 2007 UT App 255, ¶ 15, 167 P.3d 503 (cleaned up). “And we will not reverse a jury verdict if we conclude that some evidence exists from which a reasonable jury could find that the elements of the crime had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” State v. Maestas, 2012 UT 46, ¶ 177, 299 P.3d 892 (cleaned up). Thus, “we may reverse a verdict only when the evidence, so viewed, is sufficiently inconclusive or inherently improbable that reasonable minds must have entertained a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime of which he or she was convicted.” State v. Graves, 2019 UT App 72, ¶ 17, 442 P.3d 1228 (cleaned up).


¶20 Rivera contends that there was insufficient evidence to support her convictions for child abuse. Specifically, she argues that (1) the children testified at trial that Rivera did not abuse them, (2) her admission that she used her nails to pinch K.S. on one occasion does not constitute child abuse but is reasonable parental discipline, and (3) trial evidence supports the conclusion that Father more likely caused the scars on the children. In support of this claim, Rivera argues that the children’s pretrial allegations that she pinched them with pliers are “too inherently improbable to support the verdict.” In effect, Rivera urges us to determine that the children’s pretrial statements were inherently improbable and to rely only on the trial testimony. Thus, we first address whether the children’s statements were inherently improbable. Then, having determined that they were not, we consider whether there was sufficient evidence to support Rivera’s convictions for child abuse.

I. Inherent Improbability Exception

¶21 An appellate court is “not normally in the business of reassessing or reweighing evidence” and resolves “conflicts in the evidence in favor of the jury verdict.” State v. Prater, 2017 UT 13, ¶ 32, 392 P.3d 398 (cleaned up). Indeed, “there is perhaps no more axiomatic statement when reviewing jury verdicts than this: The choice between conflicting testimony is within the province of the jury.” State v. Cady, 2018 UT App 8, ¶ 23, 414 P.3d 974 (cleaned up). But “in some unusual circumstances we will conclude that the testimony presented to the jury was so unreliable that it cannot form the basis of a conviction.” Prater, 2017 UT 13, ¶ 32 (cleaned up). Such a rare circumstance exists when “the evidence is so inconclusive or inherently improbable that it could not support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” State v. Workman, 852 P.2d 981, 984 (Utah 1993).

¶22 In State v. Robbins, our supreme court articulated “the scope of the inherent improbability” exception. 2009 UT 23, ¶¶ 13, 19, 210 P.3d 288. A court can “reevaluate the jury’s credibility determinations only in those instances where (1) there are material inconsistencies in the testimony and (2) there is no other circumstantial or direct evidence of the defendant’s guilt. The existence of any additional evidence supporting the verdict prevents the judge from reconsidering the witness’s credibility.” Id. ¶ 19. In Prater, the court clarified the Robbins formulation of the inherent improbability exception by stating that it is “inconsistencies in the [witness’s] testimony plus the patently false statements the [witness makes] plus the lack of any corroboration that [allows a] court to conclude that insufficient evidence [supports a defendant’s] conviction.” 2017 UT 13, ¶ 38.

¶23 This “narrow” formulation of the exception found in Robbins and Prater presents “a significant barrier in succeeding on claims of inherent improbability.” Cady, 2018 UT App 8, ¶¶ 17–18. Thus, “[i]t is difficult to successfully establish such a claim on appeal.” Id. ¶ 18; see also State v. Doyle, 2018 UT App 239, ¶ 17, 437 P.3d 1266 (stating that “the inherent improbability [exception] has very limited applicability and comes into play only in those instances” that satisfy the approach adopted in Robbins and Prater (cleaned up)); State v. Ray, 2017 UT App 78, ¶ 25, 397 P.3d 817 (“‘Inherent improbability’ . . . does not apply more generally to cases involving a victim’s incredibility—not even significant incredibility.”), cert. granted on other grounds, 406 P.3d 250.[6]

¶24 Just as the court in Robbins plainly stated that any additional evidence supporting the verdict would preclude a judge from reconsidering a witness’s credibility, Robbins, 2009 UT 23, ¶ 19, under Prater, if an appellant fails to show all three elements—material inconsistencies plus patent falsity plus lack of corroboration—a judge is likewise precluded from reconsidering witness credibility, 2017 UT 13, ¶ 42 (stating that a court may find witnesses’ testimony inherently improbable only when “no other circumstantial or direct evidence support[s] the defendant’s guilt” (cleaned up)); see also State v. Crespo, 2017 UT App 219, ¶ 27, 409 P.3d 99 (stating that under the inherent improbability exception, the credibility of a witness’s testimony may be reassessed only when such testimony “is the sole evidence that a crime was even committed and there is a complete lack of circumstantial evidence” (cleaned up)). On appellate review, because all three elements of the inherent improbability exception must be met under Prater, where we identify that any one of them is missing, the claim of inherent improbability fails.

¶25      Rivera’s claim of inherent improbability fails because the children’s pretrial statements were corroborated. Rivera argues that the children’s statements lack corroboration because (1) no testimony was presented at trial of anyone—other than the children—seeing Rivera inflict the injuries, (2) Rivera’s pretrial admissions of using force against the children constituted reasonable parental discipline, and (3) physical evidence was lacking since the pliers were never tested for Rivera’s fingerprints. But in making this claim, Rivera ignores other evidence that supports the verdict.

¶26 The children uniformly reported the abuse—and identified Rivera as having inflicted it—to Father, to Detective during the CJC interviews, and to Doctor. See Prater, 2017 UT 13, ¶¶ 13, 43 (noting the consistent testimony among the three witnesses). In addition, the details in the children’s statements about the abuse corroborated each other. Each child told of Rivera using pliers to pinch them, and the children all recounted the incident of Rivera telling the brothers to beat their sister. And insofar as physical evidence is concerned, the photographs taken during the physical examinations reveal numerous scars consistent with having been pinched by pliers on multiple occasions. Indeed, Doctor, after examining the extensive scarring on the children’s bodies, described the abuse they suffered as “akin to torture.” And Rivera downplays her pretrial admissions of abusing the children. She admitted to pinching H.S. with pliers and pinching K.S. with her nails. When confronted about the scars and marks on the children, Rivera justified herself by saying that “she wasn’t the only one that did this to the children.” Finally, she admitted that she told the brothers to discipline H.S. for not reading the dictionary loud enough.

¶27 In sum, the children’s pretrial statements, made during the investigation, were corroborated. Therefore, they cannot be characterized as inherently improbable.

II. Sufficiency of the Evidence

¶28 “In considering an insufficiency-of-evidence claim,” an appellate court will not reverse a jury verdict provided it can “conclude that some evidence exists from which a reasonable jury could find that the elements of the crime had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” State v. Maestas, 2012 UT 46, ¶ 177, 299 P.3d 892 (cleaned up). We conclude that such evidence exists to support the jury’s verdict.

¶29 Resting her argument on the foundation that the children’s statements made during the primary investigation were inherently improbable, Rivera asserts that she was convicted on insufficient evidence. She asserts insufficiency in three different ways. We address each in turn.

¶30 Rivera first argues that the children’s trial testimony— because it was made under oath—should be afforded greater weight than their pretrial statements. And based on the children’s trial testimony alone, Rivera contends that there was insufficient evidence for the jury, without relying on “speculation and conjecture,” to convict her. But, as demonstrated above, Rivera’s assertion that the children’s pretrial statements were inherently improbable fails. The children’s statements were properly accepted and weighed by the jury. And when evidence is disputed, as it was in this case, it is not for the court to resolve the conflict by excluding certain evidence from consideration. Rather, it is the jury’s job to sort through conflicting evidence and to assess the credibility of the witnesses. See State v. Cady, 2018 UT App 8, ¶ 23, 414 P.3d 974. Far from showing insufficiency, Rivera has simply identified a conflict in the evidence that requires resolution through deliberation of a factfinder, which is a function the jury has carried out here.

¶31 Second, Rivera claims that her pretrial admissions about disciplining the children were insufficient to support a finding that she caused “serious physical injury” to them under the Utah Code. See Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-109(1)(f)(ii)(E) (LexisNexis Supp. 2016) (stating that “any combination of two or more physical injuries inflicted by the same person, either at the same time or on different occasions” constitutes “serious physical injury”). But Rivera’s argument is misplaced. It does not matter whether her pretrial admissions, standing alone, demonstrated child abuse. Rather, the factfinder considers the evidence taken as a whole. Indeed, discrete evidence in many trials would be insufficient to support a conviction if viewed in a vacuum, apart from other evidence. But we do not consider evidence in such a piecemeal and isolated fashion. Instead, we analyze whether there is sufficient evidence to support a verdict “in light of the totality of the evidence.” State v. Ashcraft, 2015 UT 5, ¶ 27, 349 P.3d 664.

¶32 Furthermore, Rivera’s pretrial statements—when considered with all the other evidence—support her conviction. She admitted to hurting the children. She admitted to using pliers to discipline H.S. She admitted to pinching the children with her nails. She admitted to having K.S. and F.S. punch H.S. All three children’s statements to investigators corroborate these same events. Furthermore, as described above, the abusive nature of Rivera’s admitted methods of discipline are corroborated by the physical-examination photographs and by Doctor’s testimony.

¶33 Third, Rivera argues that the testimony about Father reveals that he most likely injured the children. Citing State v. Cristobal, 2010 UT App 228, 238 P.3d 1096, Rivera asserts that because there is evidence that Father may have abused the children, the jury’s verdict convicting her was based on “speculation and conjecture” and unreasonable inferences. But Rivera’s argument employs an overly broad understanding of “speculation.” Rivera would have us conclude that by presenting an alternate explanation for the children’s injuries, she has established that her conviction was based on speculation. This is incorrect. “A jury draws a reasonable inference if there is an evidentiary foundation to draw and support the conclusion. In the case of speculation, however, there is no underlying evidence to support the conclusion.” Salt Lake City v. Carrera, 2015 UT 73, ¶ 12, 358 P.3d 1067. As explained above, there is certainly an evidentiary foundation from which to draw and support the conclusion that Rivera pinched the children with pliers and otherwise abused them.

¶34 Rivera’s insufficiency-of-the-evidence argument is unpersuasive because the “existence of a conflict in the evidence does not render the totality of the evidence insufficient. It is the role of the factfinder to examine and resolve such conflicts.” State v. Black, 2015 UT App 30, ¶ 19, 344 P.3d 644. And that is precisely what the jury did in this case. It considered the conflicting evidence and served “as the exclusive judge of both the credibility of witnesses and the weight to be given to particular evidence” in convicting Rivera of child abuse. Id. (cleaned up).


¶35      Rivera’s claim that the children’s pretrial statements were inherently improbable fails because the statements were corroborated. And Rivera’s claim that she was convicted on insufficient evidence fails because there was ample evidence to support the verdict rendered by the jury. We therefore affirm.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277


[1] “On appeal, we review the record facts in a light most favorable to the jury’s verdict and recite the facts accordingly.” State v. Maese, 2010 UT App 106, ¶ 2 n.2, 236 P.3d 155.

[2] These were the ages of the children when they reported the abuse in 2016.

[3] Photographs of the children entered into evidence verify the extent of their injuries. In reviewing these photographs, one might mistakenly conclude that the children had been peppered with a shotgun blast based on the density of the scarring to their bodies.

[4] About this same time, K.S. told his ecclesiastical leader that the children had pinched each other and had made up the story about Rivera inflicting the abuse.

[5] Regarding the last two counts, the Information stated that (1) the children had observed Rivera beat Father and (2) Father revealed that Rivera beat him and threatened to have him deported if he reported her abuse of the children.

[6] Undue micro-focus on the elements of the inherent improbability exception often leads to legal myopia where the ultimate question—whether a reasonable jury could find a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt—is lost in the details. A case which actually falls within the Robbins–Prater rubric is exceedingly rare. In fact, we have not found a single Utah decision examined under that rubric that has reversed a verdict since Robbins.

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