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Tag: support

Is It Common for Ex-spouses to Continue Supporting Each Other Financially and Emotionally After a Divorce? What Are Some Potential Solutions for This Situation?

See parent question. I am a divorce lawyer, and after a divorce case ends (meaning a decree of divorce has been issued and case essentially closed), I literally never know how the divorced couple interacts afterward unless their interactions result in the violation of provisions of the decree, or circumstances change so substantially and materially from what they were at the time the decree of divorce was entered that modifying the decree becomes either necessary or warranted.

If a court orders an ex-spouse to pay child support and/or alimony, then clearly that ex-spouse will be supporting the other financially, but this is due to a court order, not out of the goodness of that ex-spouse’s heart (in fairness, most people have no objection to supporting their own minor children and would do so whether they were “court-ordered” to do so).

That stated, it is my impression that post-divorce, most (most, not all) couples interact with each other very little, and only as much as necessary. Obviously, divorced parents of minor children almost always find themselves interacting with each other more than a couple without children or whose children are grown adults and not living with either parent because these divorced parents of minor children need to sign documents pertaining to the children, attend health care appointments and parent teacher conferences, performances and athletic events in which the children participate, etc.

Some ex-spouses end up voluntarily supporting an ex-spouse financially and/or emotionally because they didn’t want the divorce and still care for their ex-spouses and genuinely want to help them. Some provide support over and above what the court orders because it’s easier to provide the support than it is to ignore the ex-spouse’s constant wheedling and complaining, threats, and overall nuisance-causing.

Some people divorce in such an amicable way that they can truly care for each other yet conclude (often mutually) that they are better off friends than spouses. In those situations, they can and do care about and support each other as friends. I don’t know about you, but I am not in the habit of supporting my friends financially (with friends like those . . . ). Of course I’ll help in a time of emergency or need, I’ll buy a friend a birthday gift, pick up the tab for a meal, and things like that, but I don’t consider it part of a friendship to be paying a friend’s expenses with any degree of regularity. So a “friendly ex-spouse” who expects your friendship with him/her to include regular financial support of any amount is probably exploiting your good will.

For the most part, it is my experience that most ex-spouses do not voluntarily continue to support each other financially and emotionally after a divorce; it’s part of the divorce process to cut those ties.

A divorced person who feels “cheated” or “deprived” of an ex-spouse’s financial and/or emotional support after divorce because of divorce is someone who either does not understand divorce or its purpose.

If one is an innocent spouse who was nothing but loving and supporting and faithful and devoted during the married and his/her spouse divorced him/her due to no fault of the innocent spouse, well, honey, unless your ex comes to his/her senses and sincerely begs your forgiveness (and it is known to happen in rare, rare circumstances—not frequently enough to justify believing or even hoping it is likely to happen), then if your ex wants nothing more to do with you, you’re much better off finding love, affection, and support elsewhere.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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Client Red Flags By Braxton Mounteer

In my time as a legal assistant in the family law profession, I have observed many different kinds of client behaviors, some better than others. Those behaviors that cause the warning sirens to go off in our office are not always apparent upon first meeting with a client. It can be two or three weeks of communication before a red flag behavior appears.

One of the worst red flags that I have seen is not telling the whole truth. Clients who spin a yarn that falsely paints them as victims who are down on their luck and being abused by their exes and the system. Usually, this kind of dishonest client is not only being dishonest, but gives as good has he or she got in a mutually dysfunctional relationship. There isn’t much of an argument to be had by accusing your spouse of being an abusive drunk, a pill-popper, a philanderer, etc. when you’re engaged in the same or similar bad behavior. Be honest with your lawyer. He can help you. He can’t magically make all problems disappear, but he can ensure you present the ugly truths about yourself in the most effective ways. Your lawyer can’t help you very much, if at all, however, if you’re not honest with your lawyer. Period.

Another behavior that sets off the warning bells are the clients who focus on how much money and/or assets that they can get out of their former spouse. You are entitled to an equitable distribution of the marital assets. A fair division. But when clients try to leverage the children for money lie about abuse and betrayal and debauchery, that’s not only disgusting but it can backfire.

Finally, the least damning of the red flags but the most common are the clients who ghost their lawyers. Why would you hire an attorney ostensibly to help you, then not cooperate with them? If your lawyer is calling, it is probably important. You need to take the call. You need to return the call. Read your lawyer’s emails. Respond to them. Timely. When you fall asleep at the wheel or just expect your lawyer to do everything, it isn’t your lawyer’s fault when things go awry.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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What Justifications Are There for Alimony in 2022?

It’s a good question.

Clearly, in an earlier time, when one member of a married couple almost always had substantially more ability to be self-supporting, alimony made a lot more sense then than it does now.

Back when man owned and controlled most, if not all, of the marital property and not only had far greater opportunities for gainful employment than did women, especially married women, but were expected to support their wives financially, and given that housewives were often at a disadvantage in the workforce subsequent to divorce as a result of being out of the workforce due to bearing and caring for a married couple’s children, alimony made good moral, fiscal, and common sense.

Perhaps the most compelling reason governments support the concept of alimony in the event of a divorce is this: ordering one spouse to pay alimony to the other prevents the alimony recipient from becoming a public charge (otherwise stated, from becoming dependent upon government financial assistance, and thus saving the taxpayer money).

Clearly, an innocent spouse who has been wronged by his/her spouse in a manner that temporarily or even permanently impedes the innocent spouse’s ability to be self-reliant and/or to enjoy the lifestyle to which the innocent spouse became accustomed during the marriage may have, and usually does have, a sound argument for receiving alimony.

But one of the biggest problems with alimony today, however, one of the things it makes it so hard to justify in the modern age, is when a spouse chooses to leave a marriage and expects to receive alimony when the other spouse is innocent of any wrongdoing in the marriage.

By way of analogy (and bear in mind that this is an analogy, not a perfect equivalence), nobody would sympathize with an employee who quits his job yet still expects the employer to keep paying him a salary thereafter. That’s not how that relationship works. The employee gets paid in exchange for working for the employer. When you choose not to work for the employer, the employer is relieved of any obligation to pay you.

Why, then, is it fair for a wife to leave and divorce her husband, when the husband has done no wrong, yet still expect the husband to provide for the wife financially to any degree? It’s not. Plainly not.

Marriage is not purely contractual, but there is a contractual element to marriage, clearly. Inherent in that contractual element is a mutual obligation of support between spouses; they take care of each other. A spouse who honors his marital and spousal obligations should not be compelled by force of law to continue to honor those obligations if and when his spouse chooses not to reciprocate. Otherwise stated: you are free to end the marriage at any time, if you so choose, but ending the marriage means that everything inherent in the marriage ends; both your obligations and your entitlements. You no longer have any obligations to your spouse (because he’s not your spouse anymore), and your spouse no longer has any obligations to you (because he’s not your spouse anymore).

When spouses who leave faultless spouses claim that they nevertheless still have a right to be financially supported by their faultless ex-spouses on the basis of being unable to support themselves or to support the lifestyle to which they became accustomed during the marriage without financial support from their ex-spouses, such an argument completely disregards the natural consequence of the choice to divorce a faultless spouse. Your self-imposed inability to support yourself after quitting a well-paying job you may not have liked does not entitle you to demand a living from anyone else. Your inability to fly or levitate does not entitle you to live when you choose to jump off a 300 foot cliff.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/What-justifications-are-there-for-alimony-in-2022/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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How do you stay strong while being alienated from your child?

Any way that works for you (without running afoul of God or the law of the land, of course).

Parental alienation is one of the most gut-wrenching miseries one can experience, and it is one of the hardest things to deal with, especially if you find yourself abandoned and rejected—even further victimized—by the people and institutions that ostensibly exist to protect us against lies, slander, deprivation of our rights, and overall justice. Sometimes justice is done, but far too rarely and it is often a day late and a dollar short.

Deal with it as best you can, find what works for you. Listen to other’s advice but find what works for you. We all deal with deep pain like this differently. You don’t deserve this, but you can all too rarely count on “the system” to help you. Lastly, parental alienation will drain the tanks of your dignity, character, decency, faith, and will power dry if you don’t take care to keep them filled. Don’t be afraid to lean on God, your friends, and family for a LOT of support. You’ll feel you’re asking too much. And at some points along this path, you likely will. But your Heavenly Father and your true friends will bear with you if you let them.

You’re not the first to experience indescribable injustice and pain, and like many before you who successfully clawed their way to healing and some happiness, you can too. You can. You owe it to yourself (and your innocent children).

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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How can a mother leave the father of her baby and get full custody, when she does not trust him to look after the baby by himself?

How can a mother leave the father of her baby and get full custody, when she does not trust him to look after the baby by himself? The mother (or any parent in such a situation) would need to prove, by a preponderance of evidence, to the court that the father (or other parent) is sufficiently unfit to be entrusted with the child. Simply telling the court “I don’t trust the other parent” is not enough, not even close to enough to persuade the court.

The mother would need to provide the court independently verifiable facts that show the father is either unable or unwilling to provide adequate care and attention and supervision of the child. A court cannot award a parent sole legal and/or sole physical custody of a child without first finding there is sufficient evidence to justify such an award (or at least cannot do its job properly without first finding there is sufficient evidence to justify such an award).

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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2019 UT App 204 – In re H.F. incorrect analysis terminating parental rights

2019 UT App 204 – THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH, IN THE INTEREST OF H.F., A PERSON UNDER EIGHTEEN YEARS OF AGE.
J.F., Appellant,
v.
E.F., Appellee.

Opinion
No. 20180348-CA
Filed December 12, 2019

Third District Juvenile Court, Salt Lake Department
The Honorable Julie V. Lund
No. 1100472

Scott L. Wiggins and Lisa Lokken, Attorneys for Appellant
Joshua P. Eldredge, Attorney for Appellee
Martha Pierce, Guardian ad Litem

JUDGE MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER authored this Opinion, in which JUDGES JILL M. POHLMAN and DIANA HAGEN concurred.

CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, Judge:

¶1           J.F. (Mother) appeals from the juvenile court’s termination of her parental rights to H.F. (Child). We reverse and remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

¶2           Child was born in December 2012. Soon after Child’s birth, Mother discovered that her husband, E.F. (Father), had been using drugs. Suffering from postpartum depression, Mother also began using drugs with Father as a means of self-medicating.

¶3           In March 2014, the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) removed Child from Mother and Father’s home as a result of their drug use. Upon removal, DCFS placed Child with Mother’s parents (Grandparents). During this time, Grandparents facilitated visitation between Child and Father, as well as Father’s extended family.

¶4           Soon after Child was removed from the parents’ home, Mother began a relationship with “a really bad guy.” She left Utah with him, and they began committing crimes together. Eventually, the pair were arrested, convicted of multiple crimes, and incarcerated.

¶5           Conversely, Father began participating in drug treatment in June 2014. After completing treatment, he became involved in various peer support groups to help others with drug addiction and even obtained a full-time job as a peer recovery coach for a nonprofit addiction-recovery agency. In March 2015, Father filed for divorce from Mother and was granted a default divorce awarding him full legal and physical custody of Child. In May 2015, upon the State’s motion, the juvenile court terminated its jurisdiction and DCFS involvement. After Father regained custody of Child, Grandparents continued to provide regular daycare for Child.

¶6           In July 2016, Father moved the juvenile court to terminate Mother’s parental rights. Father was engaged to be married, and his fiancée (Fiancée) wanted to adopt Child, but they had not yet set a wedding date and were not yet living together.[1] Grandparents “had a heated conversation with” Father about his termination petition, and subsequently, he put Child in full-time daycare and did not permit Grandparents to see Child as often.

¶7           At Mother’s termination trial in December 2017, her former criminal attorney expressed his belief that Mother’s criminal actions had been “very much influenced by” her co­defendant but that she “was a model defendant”; continually showed concern for her family and a desire to take care of her children;[2] had come to understand, through participation in counseling, her responsibilities and the detrimental effects of her co-dependent relationship with her co-defendant; and ultimately told the truth about the criminal incidents even though her co­defendant was damaged by her admissions. Mother was still incarcerated at the time of the termination trial but was due to be released in April 2019. She had been participating in a voluntary drug-treatment program. She testified that prior to Child’s removal, she was his “sole care provider.” She testified that she has a bond with Child, that she has had regular telephone and video calls with him since losing custody and sends him letters, that Child had expressed his desire to be reunited with Mother, and that she wants to have “visitation as much as possible” and to “be in [Child’s] life as much as [she] can.” She testified that she regrets her past decisions and their effect on her children, but she also could not rule out the possibility of a relationship with her co-defendant when he is released from prison in eight or nine years.

¶8        Father testified that he was willing to support a continuing relationship between Child and Mother following termination of her rights so long as it was “safe” for Child. Although Father did not discourage Child’s contact with Mother, he did not directly facilitate Mother and Child’s contact; rather, this contact took place when Child visited Grandparents. Both Father and Fiancée testified that Child has a very good relationship with Fiancée, that she treats him like her own child, and that Child sees her as his mom. Father testified that he believed Child’s relationship with Mother’s family was “beneficial.” He claimed that Child’s relationship with Mother’s family would not change if Mother’s rights were terminated. He admitted that he “could make a better effort in . . . communicating to set” up time between Child and Mother’s extended family but explained that he had felt a need to set “boundaries” because the termination petition had “put a strain” on his relationship with Mother’s family.

¶9        Grandparents expressed fear that termination would “have a very negative impact on [their] relationship with [Child]” and that Father “would move on” and “find a way to take [Child] away from” Grandparents. Mother’s brother, who also had a close relationship with Father, expressed his belief that Father had become uninterested in Mother’s side of the family and that Father would not let Mother’s family see Child anymore if Mother’s rights were terminated. Another of Mother’s brothers likewise testified that the family’s contact with Child had been less frequent during the preceding year and that he believed Father would cut off contact between Child and Mother’s family if the court terminated Mother’s rights.

¶10 Following trial, the juvenile court found two grounds for termination: (1) that Mother was an unfit parent because she was unable to care for Child as a result of her incarceration and (2) that she had neglected child through her habitual and excessive use of controlled substances. See Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1)(b), (c) (LexisNexis 2018); id. § 78A-6-508(2)(c), (e) (Supp. 2019). The court further found that termination was in Child’s best interest.

¶11 In reaching its conclusion regarding Child’s best interest, the juvenile court limited its analysis to three factors—Child’s “bond with his caregivers,” his “need for permanence and stability,” and “the potential risk of harm if returned to [Mother’s] care.” The court found that there was not an intact parental relationship between Mother and Child because she had not acted as his caregiver for an extended period of time. It observed that although Child recognizes that Mother is his mom, he has developed a mother–child bond with Fiancée as well. The court also found that Fiancée intended “to adopt [Child] should he be legally free.” The court concluded that “[t]hese facts support the need for permanence and stability and that [Child] does have a bond with his caregivers.” The court further found that there was “a potential risk of harm to” Child from Mother because she could not rule out the possibility of a future relationship with her co-defendant, who had been described as a “really bad guy.” Finally, the court found that termination of Mother’s rights was “strictly necessary for [Child] to achieve permanency and stability.” Based on these findings, the court determined that it was in Child’s best interest that Mother’s parental rights be terminated. Mother now appeals.

ISSUE AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶12 Mother argues that the juvenile court exceeded its discretion in terminating her parental rights. “The ultimate decision about whether to terminate a parent’s rights presents a mixed question of law and fact.” In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 8, 436 P.3d 206 (quotation simplified), cert. granted, 440 P.3d 692 (Utah 2019). We review the court’s factual findings for clear error and its legal conclusions for correctness, “affording the court some discretion in applying the law to the facts.” Id. (quotation simplified). Nevertheless, “the proper interpretation and application of a statute is a question of law which we review for correctness.” In re A.M., 2009 UT App 118, ¶ 6, 208 P.3d 1058 (quotation simplified).

ANALYSIS

¶13 In assessing whether termination of parental rights is appropriate, a court must employ a “two-part test.” In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 13, 436 P.3d 206, cert. granted, 440 P.3d 692 (Utah 2019). “First, a trial court must find that one or more of the statutory grounds for termination are present,” and second, “a trial court must find that termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interests of the child.” Id. (quotation simplified). Mother does not contest the juvenile court’s determination that grounds existed to support termination, but she maintains that termination was not in Child’s best interest and that the court did not adequately consider all factors relevant to that determination.

¶14 “The ‘best interest’ test is broad, and is intended as a holistic examination of all the relevant circumstances that might affect a child’s situation.” Id. ¶ 47; see also In re G.J.C, 2016 UT App 147, ¶ 24, 379 P.3d 58 (“Determining a child’s best interest in termination of parental rights proceedings is a subjective assessment based on the totality of the circumstances.”). Utah courts have identified numerous factors that may be relevant to this determination. For example, a court may consider “the physical, mental, or emotional condition and needs of the child”; “the effort the parent has made to adjust their circumstances, conduct, or conditions to make restoring the parent–child relationship in the child’s best interest”; “the child’s bond with caregivers”; the child’s “need for permanency and stability”; and “the potential risk of harm if returned to the parents’ care.” See In re G.J.C., 2016 UT App 147, ¶ 24 (quotation simplified). It may consider the parent’s “demeanor,” “attitude toward his or her child,” and “attitude in fulfilling parental obligations,” see In re T.E., 2011 UT 51, ¶ 44, 266 P.3d 739, and it may weigh the benefits of the child continuing a relationship with an unfit parent even where reunification is not an option, examine the child’s prospects for adoption, and even consider the child’s preferences in some circumstances, In re D.R.A., 2011 UT App 397, ¶¶ 19, 21, 266 P.3d 844; see also In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 56. Moreover, as part of the best interest analysis, Utah law requires courts to “analyze whether termination of a child’s parent’s rights is ‘strictly necessary,’” that is, the court must “explore whether other feasible options exist that could address the specific problems or issues facing the family, short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights.” In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶¶ 50, 55; see also Utah Code Ann. § 78A-6-507(1) (LexisNexis 2018) (“Subject to the protections and requirements of Section 78A-6-503, and if the court finds strictly necessary, the court may terminate all parental rights with respect to a parent if the court finds any one of the following [statutory factors] . . . .” (emphasis added)).

¶15 In conducting its best interest analysis, the juvenile court did not take the holistic approach that has been prescribed by this court. Rather than examining the totality of all circumstances affecting Child’s best interest, the court erroneously interpreted In re G.J.C., 2016 UT App 147, 379 P.3d 58, as articulating a best interest test composed of only three specific factors: (1) “bond with caregivers,” (2) “need for permanence and stability,” and (3) “the potential risk of harm if returned to the parent’s care.” See id. ¶ 24. Further, the court’s finding that termination was “strictly necessary” was conclusory and did not include an examination of feasible alternatives to termination, as required by In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, 436 P.3d 206.[3]

¶16 The court’s reliance on only the three specific factors gleaned from In re G.J.C. unduly narrowed the “broad,” “holistic” best interest test, see In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 47, and its order did not accurately represent the direction given by this court in In re G.J.C.[4] The three factors identified in In re G.J.C. were not given as a definitive list of factors; rather the court stated that those three factors were “proper” factors to consider “in the context of a best-interest determination.” 2016 UT App 147, ¶ 24. Indeed, the court explicitly instructed that a best interest determination must be “based on the totality of the circumstances.” Id. This court reaffirmed and elaborated on this “holistic” approach in In re B.T.B., when it instructed “courts to examine all of the relevant facts and circumstances surrounding the child’s situation” and, in particular, “to explore whether other feasible options exist that could address the specific problems or issues facing the family, short of imposing the ultimate remedy of terminating the parent’s rights,” in order to satisfy the legislature’s requirement that termination be limited to circumstances where it is “strictly necessary.” 2018 UT App 157, ¶¶ 47, 54–55.

¶17 Because of the court’s narrow focus on only three factors pertaining to the best interest analysis, its findings do not reveal whether the court considered a number of additional factors relevant to determining if termination of Mother’s rights was in Child’s best interest, including the fact that Child’s prospects for adoption by Fiancée were speculative, Child’s bond with Mother and any benefits of him continuing a relationship with Mother, and the effect of termination on Child’s relationship with his extended family, including his half-sister.[5] Further, while the court’s analysis emphasized Child’s need for stability, it is unclear how terminating Mother’s parental rights would achieve that goal. Child was not in DCFS custody or a short-term placement with a foster family with an unsettled future. Rather, Father had permanent sole legal and physical custody of Child. Child would continue to be raised primarily by Father and Fiancée, regardless of whether Mother’s parental rights were terminated. And while termination would free Child for adoption by Fiancée, Fiancée was not in an immediate position to adopt Child, and it was not certain that she would ever be in such a position, as she and Father were not actually married. Even the danger anticipated by the juvenile court if Mother eventually resumed her relationship with her co-defendant was mostly speculative, as the co-defendant would not be released from prison for many years. See In re D.R.A., 2011 UT App 397, ¶ 21 (determining that the State had failed to establish that termination was in a child’s best interest in part because “the benefits of severing” the parent–child relationship were “too speculative”). Finally, the court’s determination that termination was strictly necessary was not supported by an appropriate exploration of feasible alternatives to termination. See In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 55. Therefore, the juvenile court’s findings do not support its determination that termination was in Child’s best interest.

CONCLUSION

¶18 Because the juvenile court did not employ the correct holistic analysis in assessing whether termination of Mother’s parental rights was in Child’s best interest and its findings do not support such a determination, we vacate the court’s order terminating Mother’s parental rights and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.[6]

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

———————————————————–

[1] Utah law requires a prospective adoptive stepparent to be married to the child’s custodial parent and to have lived with the custodial parent and the stepchild for at least one year prior to entry of the final decree of adoption. Utah Code Ann. § 78B-6¬ 117(2)(a) (LexisNexis Supp. 2019); id. § 78B-6-136.5(2)(a) (2018). Thus, as of the termination trial, Fiancée was at least one year away from being able to adopt Child.

[2] Mother has another child who was not included in the termination proceedings.

[3] Father argues that the juvenile court was not required to engage in the “strictly necessary” analysis prescribed by In re B.T.B. because that case was decided after the court issued its oral ruling in this case. However, Father makes no effort to explain why we should not apply this analysis. The “strictly necessary” language has been part of the statute since 2012, Act of March 7, 2012, ch. 281, § 6, 2012 Utah Laws 1331, 1334; In re B.T.B. merely interpreted that statutory language. And upon interpreting the language, the In re B.T.B. court sent that case back to the trial court for reconsideration: “Because we clarify and partially reformulate the test for termination of parental rights, we remand this case to the juvenile court for reconsideration in light of this opinion.” 2018 UT App 157, ¶ 2, 436 P.3d 206, cert. granted, 440 P.3d 692 (Utah 2019). Father also fails to acknowledge that the juvenile court’s final written order was actually signed one month after In re B.T.B. was issued. We therefore reject Father’s assertion that the court’s failure to engage in a more thorough “strictly necessary” analysis should be ignored on appeal.

[4] In re G.J.C. has limited utility in any event because it employed the now-disavowed principle that “where grounds for termination are established, the conclusion that termination will be in a child’s best interest follows almost automatically.” 2016 UT App 147, ¶ 25, 379 P.3d 58 (quotation simplified); see also In re B.T.B., 2018 UT App 157, ¶¶ 22–44 (disavowing the “almost automatically” line of cases).

[5] Our analysis should not be construed as prohibiting courts from focusing on those factors that it finds to be most probative in a particular case; not every factor will be relevant in every case, and even where evidence of a particular factor is present, a court may reasonably discount the factor and decline to discuss it in detail in its findings. The court’s ruling in this case is problematic not because it focused on limited relevant factors but because it misconstrued the best interest test as being limited to those factors and because it did not examine the feasibility of less-drastic alternatives to termination.

[6] Our decision should not be read as dictating any particular result on remand. Indeed, any number of circumstances may have changed since trial, and the court should take such changes into account in reconsidering its decision. On remand, the court should expand its analysis of best interest to consider the totality of the circumstances, examine the feasibility of alternatives to termination, supplement its findings, and assess whether termination is in Child’s best interest in light of any such supplemental findings.

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2019 UT App 205, Utah Court of Appeals, State v. Wall – ex-wife murdered

2019 UT App 205 – THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

STATE OF UTAH,
Appellee,
v.
JOHNNY BRICKMAN WALL,
Appellant.

Opinion
No. 20151017-CA
Filed December 12, 2019

Third District Court, Salt Lake Department
The Honorable James T. Blanch
No. 131903972

Troy L. Booher, Freyja Johnson, and Beth Kennedy, Attorneys for Appellant
Sean D. Reyes and Tera J. Peterson, Attorneys for Appellee
JUDGE DIANA HAGEN authored this Opinion, in which
JUDGES GREGORY K. ORME and JILL M. POHLMAN concurred.
HAGEN, Judge:

¶1           A jury convicted Johnny Brickman Wall of murdering his ex-wife, Uta von Schwedler.[1] Wall appeals his conviction, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to convict him, that the district court erred in admitting certain DNA evidence, and that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to object to the State’s closing argument involving the DNA evidence. We conclude that Wall has not carried his burden on appeal to show there was insufficient evidence to support his murder conviction. Further, the district court did not exceed its discretion in admitting certain DNA evidence, and Wall’s trial counsel did not perform deficiently in failing to object to the prosecutor’s characterization of that evidence in closing argument. Accordingly, we affirm Wall’s conviction.

BACKGROUND

Marriage and Divorce

¶2           In 1988, a mutual friend introduced Uta to Wall while they were each completing doctorate programs on the west coast. Wall and Uta married in 1990, and Wall graduated from medical school four years later. After medical school, Uta, Wall, and their newborn son moved to Utah for Wall’s residency program. Over the next few years, they had three more children together.

¶3           By 2005, the marriage had failed and Uta moved out of the family home, leaving the four children to live primarily with Wall. The couple divorced in 2006.

¶4           Wall and Uta responded differently to the divorce. According to their children, Wall was “very, very sad” and depressed after the divorce, but over time his mood changed from sadness to “anger, even hatred” toward Uta. Wall frequently complained to the children about Uta, saying that she was “a bad parent,” that she was “selfish,” and that she made his “life difficult.” The children said that Wall never treated Uta “nicely or kindly” after the divorce. At one point, Wall “physically removed” Uta from his property when she “tried to come in the front yard” to pick up the children for her parent time.

¶5 Most people who knew Wall knew that he “despised” Uta. He asked his friends, “Would it be bad if Uta wasn’t here anymore?” and “How would my life be if she weren’t around?” He sent emails to Uta accusing her of immoral acts and threatening to “move away” with the children “or continue towards obtaining full custody.” He blamed Uta for his unhappiness and accused her of “hurt[ing] people that matter deeply” to him. When she reached out to him regarding requests from the children’s friends for weekend trips, he asked her to “please stop inserting [herself] in [his] parent time.”

¶6           It was clear that Wall did not want Uta in the children’s lives. The summer before her death, Wall took the children to California but refused to tell them when they were returning to Utah because he did not want them to tell Uta. If the children attempted to communicate with Uta while they were with Wall, “he would become very upset” and would sometimes take their phones away from them. He was uncooperative with Uta regarding parent-time exchanges and adjustments to the custody arrangement. Wall frequently ignored Uta’s messages, and she had to organize parent-time schedules through her older children.

¶7           Uta’s response to the divorce was quite different. Her friends, family, coworkers, and other acquaintances who testified at trial knew Uta to be “very outgoing, very friendly, very cheerful,” and “full of life.” Those witnesses said her positive attitude continued after the divorce, and some people “certainly thought she was happier” after the divorce. She was welcoming to newcomers and frequently brought homemade treats to work or to social gatherings. She regularly engaged in physical activities such as swimming, running, hiking, skiing, and camping. Uta was in a “very happy” relationship with a man (the boyfriend) whom the children liked, and the two eldest children told family members that they “were so happy that Uta had [the boyfriend]” because he was “a really, really good match for Uta.” No witness testified that Uta was unhappy or suicidal, except for Wall.

¶8           Uta was very involved in her children’s lives. Although she “had a great love and passion for science,” she arranged with her supervisor to work a “30-hour work week” because “it was important to her to be available for [her children] after [school] hours.” “Uta’s greatest pleasure in life was the love of her four children,” and she wanted to spend more time with them. She attended their sporting events and musical performances and created photo albums for each of them.

¶9           One of the few things that upset Uta was attempting to work with Wall regarding the children. A few years after the divorce, Uta hired an attorney to file a petition to modify the divorce decree regarding parent time, and the court ordered mediation. Although Wall and Uta reached an agreement during mediation, Wall later refused to sign the proposed order. Thus, for years following the divorce, the custody arrangement was never sorted out and remained a “constant battle.”

¶10 Early in September 2011, after years of unsuccessfully attempting to work out a better custody arrangement outside of court, Uta reached out to her attorney to discuss filing a new petition to modify the divorce decree and to consider moving to appoint a custody evaluator. Wall ignored Uta’s inquiries related to the children, including whether he would either agree to sign the custody evaluation request or agree to the proposed parent-time schedule for the upcoming school year. He also frequently ignored his own attorney’s communications related to these requests. The week before Uta’s death, in an apparent change of course, Wall agreed to sign the custody evaluation request the following week. But after he left the children in Uta’s care for the weekend, Wall “excited[ly]” told a new acquaintance that “he was getting his kids back.”

Uta’s Final Days

¶11 The week before her death, Uta had made a discovery in her research that could advance a new treatment for childhood leukemia. According to her supervisor, the “long-term implications of that discovery” were “very exciting on a professional level, on a career level, both for Uta and . . . the lab, because [it would] lead[] to new peer-reviewed publications, grants, [and] presentations.” This was a “milestone” in Uta’s career that would have had “positive implications” for her.

¶12 On September 26, 2011, the day before her body was discovered, Uta had a meeting with her supervisor and another coworker related to this new discovery, and they were all “quite enthusiastic” because “[t]his was one of the biggest discoveries [they] had had thus far in the laboratory.” Later that evening, Uta attended one of the children’s soccer games and was “in a great mood.” She spread out a blanket and shared treats with other parents. Uta told a fellow parent that she “had been camping that weekend with her kids and [her boyfriend]” and was looking forward to her upcoming trip to California with her two youngest children later that week while Wall took the two eldest children to visit universities back east.

¶13 After the soccer game, Wall arrived at Uta’s house to take the children back home. When he arrived, Uta tried to talk with him to finalize the details for the California trip, but Wall “rolled up his window and ignored her.” According to the children, Wall appeared annoyed on the drive home.

¶14 With the children out of the house, Uta went about her usual Monday evening routine of “deep cleaning” the house. Uta called her boyfriend and made plans with him for the following night. At around 10:45 p.m., Uta spoke with a friend over the phone about potential plans for the next day. That was the last time anyone heard from Uta.

September 27, 2011

¶15 The following morning, on September 27, 2011, Uta’s neighbors did not see her at her kitchen table drinking coffee and reading her newspaper, as she did all other mornings. Instead, the newspaper remained in the driveway, and the garbage cans Uta put out for collection the night before remained on the street.

¶16 That same morning, Uta’s eldest daughter awoke at around 6:00 a.m. and got ready for school. She searched the house for Wall, who usually drove her to the light rail station, but she could not find him anywhere. The eldest daughter testified that if Wall had to leave for the hospital in the middle of the night, he would “generally . . . text [her] or call [her]” to let her know, but he had not left her any messages that morning. After calling him twice with no answer, the eldest daughter walked to the station to go to school. Wall was spotted by the eldest daughter’s schoolmate and her mother at 7:05 a.m., driving some distance away from and in the opposite direction of his house, and Wall still had not returned home to get the youngest children ready for school by the time the eldest son left for school around 7:30 a.m. But the two youngest children remembered speaking with Wall at some point before leaving for school. Specifically, they remembered seeing an injury to Wall’s eye. Wall told them that he had slept outside on the porch and had been scratched by their dog, but the youngest daughter thought Wall was acting “weird, almost paranoid.” Just after 8:00 a.m., a carwash facility photographed Wall dropping off his car. Wall took his car there to “detail the inside” and asked the carwash attendant to focus “extra heavy” in the trunk cargo area and on a spot on the driver’s side back seat.

¶17 After leaving his car to be detailed, Wall arrived late for appointments with patients. He “looked disheveled and anxious,” appeared not to have bathed, and wore the same clothes as the previous day. A medical assistant noticed that he had a scratch on the left side of his face and that his left eye was “reddened and bloodshot.” Although two people who worked in Wall’s office said that this scratch looked like it was caused by a fingernail, “Wall volunteered an explanation for the scratch, saying that his dog jumped on him and scratched his face while he was sleeping outside.” One of the assistants “thought [this] explanation was odd because [Wall] had his dog for a long time and she had never seen it scratch him before.” When Wall noticed that his assistant was looking at additional scratches on his arms, he “quickly” rolled down his sleeves. After seeing one patient, Wall left to see an eye doctor and did not return to work.

¶18 When the eldest children returned home, they too noticed the scratch to Wall’s face and eye. Wall told them that he had been sleeping outside occasionally over the past few months and that their dog had scratched him the night before while he slept outside on the porch. None of the children had ever seen Wall sleep outside on the porch, and none of them knew their dog to scratch anyone.

The Crime Scene

¶19 At around 7:45 p.m. on September 27, 2011, Uta’s boyfriend went to visit her as they had planned the night before. Uta’s garbage cans were still on the street, and her newspaper was still in the driveway. The boyfriend walked into her house through her unlocked door, which Uta normally locked before going to bed. He noticed that her bathroom door was slightly ajar and that the light was on. On his way to the bathroom, he walked past her bedroom and noticed that the blinds, which were always open, had been pulled shut. The boyfriend reached the bathroom, announced his presence, opened the door, and found Uta dead in her bathtub with the cold water running but not overflowing. She wore only her pajama shorts, and her bloodied tank top was folded at the edge of the bathtub. The boyfriend called the police, who quickly arrived on the scene.

¶20 Upon entering the house, the first responders noted that there were pills strewn across the bedroom floor, a lamp had toppled over on the bed, and a vase and books from the nightstand had been knocked onto the floor. The comforter on the bed had been balled up in a way that appeared to conceal several dried bloodstains. The fitted bed sheet contained one large pool of blood and two smaller pools of blood that “show[ed] motion in three different directions,” indicating “a sign of a real struggle.” There was also a bloodstain on the pillowcase. In the bathroom, there was blood smeared on the sink and below the windowsill located above the bathtub, but there was no blood smeared on the walls between Uta’s bedroom and bathroom or on any of the light switches. There was a shampoo bottle standing upright in the middle of the bathroom floor, which was usually kept in the windowsill above the bathtub. Under Uta’s body, the first responders found a large kitchen knife. Also in the bathwater was a magazine, the sports section of the newspaper (which Uta never read), and the youngest daughter’s photo album. There were dried bloodstains that looked like shoeprints on the kitchen floor.

¶21 Some of the officers testified that the scene appeared “suspicious,” as if “there could have been a struggle,” and that it “did not appear consistent with an overdose or accidental death.” After leaving the scene, one of the officers contacted detectives to conduct an investigation.

Wall’s First Version of the Events of September 26 and 27

¶22 Later that night, the detectives arrived at Wall’s house to ask him “if he was willing to come down to [the] police station to talk.” The officers did not tell Wall what they wanted to talk about, and he did not ask them.

¶23 While Wall waited to be interviewed, the detectives first interviewed the boyfriend. The boyfriend was “compliant” and “helpful.” He did not “have any trouble time-lining himself, explaining what he had been doing the weekend before, [or what happened] the day before. He seemed to be honest in all of his answers.”

¶24 In contrast, Wall’s responses to the detectives’ questions were vague and he spoke in generalities rather than directly answering questions about what occurred the previous night. When the detectives asked where he went the night before after picking up the children from Uta’s house, Wall said, “I don’t know . . . I don’t rem . . . I mean, I don’t usually remember every . . . what I do, but . . . ah . . . usually what we do.” (Omissions in original.) He went on tangents about what usually happened when he retrieved the children from Uta’s house at the conclusion of her parent time. The officers kept redirecting Wall, stating, “So what happened last night, though, [Wall]? This was just last night.” But Wall continued to respond to inquiries about the previous night with things the family “usually” did on Monday evenings or what the children “sometimes” did when they got back to Wall’s house. Wall could not say if he had been home the entire night or if he had gone back to Uta’s house after picking up the children. Wall evaded direct answers about the last time he had seen Uta, and he could not remember if he had recently touched Uta or the last time he had been inside Uta’s house. When directly asked if he had been inside Uta’s house on September 26 or 27, Wall responded, “I don’t think so.” When asked if there was “any reason, whatsoever, that [his] DNA . . . would be under [Uta’s] fingernails,” Wall responded, “I don’t know.” When he was asked if he killed Uta, he said, “I don’t think I did it,” “I don’t think I was there,” and, “If I did it, I did make a mistake, and I am sorry. But I don’t think I did it.”

¶25 Eventually, over the span of three hours, Wall gave an account of the things he did on September 27, 2011. He told the detectives that he went to a gas station near his house to purchase eggs between 6:45 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. He said he returned to the house and had breakfast with his two youngest children before taking them to school. Wall then went to a carwash facility because he had “extra time” that morning and there were “burritos spilled all over” the front passenger seat. He talked about going to his office, seeing the eye doctor regarding the scratch on his eye—which he again said his dog caused—and returning to the carwash to get his car before driving to his office at the hospital. At the hospital, Wall apparently parked his car and left his windows rolled down with his cell phone still inside the vehicle. He claimed that his cell phone had been stolen by the time he returned.

¶26 Wall could not tell the officers what he had done between 8:00 p.m. on September 26, 2011, and 6:45 a.m. the following day.

¶27 After interviewing Wall, the detectives had photographs taken of Wall’s injuries and had a technician take his fingerprints. Wall was not arrested, and a detective arranged a ride home for him. One of the detectives testified at trial that Wall was “surprised” that he was being released and asked, “[S]o I’m not going to jail?” When the detective said he was not, Wall responded, “[B]ut I’m a monster.”

Wall’s Conduct Following Uta’s Death

¶28 When Wall returned home from his interview with the detectives at around 2:30 a.m., he bluntly told the children, “Uta’s dead and they think I did it.” He told the youngest daughter “not to leave him alone because he was scared he would do something he would regret.” Wall curled up “in the fetal position” and cried. He started “babbling and rambling” and “saying things along the line of: ‘Am I a monster? Only a monster could have done this. How do I know what I do when I’m asleep? What if I did it and I don’t remember?’” The children and family friends testified that Wall repeatedly referred to himself as a monster in the days following Uta’s death. The eldest son explained that Wall’s ramblings made him “question[] [Wall’s] involvement in [his] mother’s death.”

¶29 One of the children called a family friend to help Wall. Wall told this friend, “Uta is dead and they think I did it . . . .” When she asked him, “[D]id you do these things that—that the police said you did?” Wall responded, “If I did them, I don’t remember.” When this friend started looking for some of Wall’s medications, he told her that he had been “sleeping outside recently” and that “the dog scratched him on his face.” She asked him, “Why are you telling me this?” And then he showed her his eye. The friend noticed other scratches and “gouges” on Wall’s body, which he quickly covered up. Because Wall was so “distraught,” the friend wanted to offer him a sedative and asked him if he was familiar with Xanax. Even though he was a medical doctor and had twice prescribed himself Xanax after his divorce from Uta, Wall claimed not to know what it was. After the friend explained Xanax’s purpose, Wall claimed to remember recently prescribing his mother Xanax “because she’s afraid to fly.” Wall then started telling the friend that “[a]ll he wanted was for Uta to be happy . . . and that’s all he ever wanted,” which the friend found to be “unusual because [she] felt like he was very angry at Uta” and did not believe that Wall really wanted her to be happy.

¶30 That same morning, Wall checked himself into a psychiatric facility where he stayed for about a week. While he was receiving treatment, the eldest son and a family friend visited him and asked him questions about Uta’s death. During this conversation, Wall asked his son, “If the police found my phone there [at Uta’s house,] what could I say to refute that?”

¶31 After Wall’s release from psychiatric treatment, the children resumed living with him, but his behavior changed. Over time, Wall restricted the children’s communication with Uta’s family and the boyfriend. Wall told the children that the boyfriend should have “come to him and comforted him in his time of need,” and therefore the boyfriend should not be allowed to communicate with the children. (Emphasis added.) Wall also began telling his children that Uta committed suicide and told the youngest son, “[M]aybe it’s better that she’s dead.” He became more “confrontational,” “aggressive and intimidating” toward the children regarding Uta’s death. The eldest son moved out of Wall’s house the day after an “uncomfortable incident” in January 2012, in which Wall asked him “what [he] knew about [his] mom’s death” and “what attorneys [he] had contacted.” By May of that year, the three other children were also no longer living with Wall.

¶32 After Uta’s death, the eldest son went to Uta’s house to collect the children’s photo albums to send them to Uta’s family in Germany. He could not enter the house on his own because the spare key that was normally left outside for the children was missing and never found. After receiving help from the boyfriend to gain access to the house, the eldest son retrieved the albums and sent them to Germany. The eldest son informed Wall that he had sent the photo albums to Germany and that Wall would receive copies of the albums. In November 2012, Wall sued the eldest son for conversion and demanded to have the photo albums returned to him. In response, the eldest son filed a counterclaim against Wall for Uta’s wrongful death.

Wall’s Second Version of the Events of September 26 and 27

¶33 At a hearing on the wrongful death claim, at which Wall was present, the lead detective testified that he was actively investigating Uta’s death as a homicide and that Wall was the primary suspect. He further testified that “DNA samples had been submitted to [a] lab for testing” and that those results were still pending.

¶34 After this hearing, Wall was deposed and asked about his whereabouts between September 26 and 27. During his deposition, Wall offered new details to account for how his or Uta’s DNA might have transferred to the areas tested by police. For instance, police took a swatch of fabric from the driver’s side back seat where Wall had pointed out a spot at the carwash. Wall volunteered that, when he picked up the children from Uta’s house the night before her death, Uta had opened the driver’s side rear passenger door to hug the youngest daughter. Wall also claimed, for the first time, that he had caught Uta walking out of his garage later that night. Wall said he pursued Uta and “[s]he turned around and hit [him] in the face” and might have scratched him. He claimed that Uta had broken into his basement “multiple times in the previous months,” but that he never reported it to the police.

¶35 Although the DNA results were still pending, counsel deposing Wall asked him, “Why is your DNA in Uta’s bedroom?” He said he did not know if his DNA was there, but that Uta had invited him into her bedroom before “to seduce [him],” although he declined her advances. He could not remember when she last invited him into her bedroom but said that it could have been one or two months before her death.

¶36 Wall also testified in his deposition that Uta attempted suicide once on their honeymoon in 1991 and again while she was pregnant with their youngest son. But Wall said that he never reported either suicide attempt[2] or helped Uta seek counseling or treatment.

¶37 Finally, Wall gave a different version of events regarding his whereabouts on September 27, 2011, than what he told the detectives. This time, Wall explained that after allegedly chasing Uta away and being hit by her in the face, he went back inside his house to sleep. He woke up around 5:00 a.m. and decided to go to the hospital to work on his patients’ charts but realized that he forgot his identification and could not enter the hospital. Wall said he decided to go for a hike up a nearby canyon before the sun rose and before going to the carwash facility and then to work. Unlike the story he told at his police interview, this version of events did not include Wall being at home that morning with the two youngest children and the newly purchased eggs before school, even though the youngest children testified to that effect.

The Investigation

¶38 While Wall was getting psychiatric treatment in September 2011, Uta’s body was sent to a medical examiner to perform an autopsy. Although some of the officers believed there could have been foul play and that her death appeared suspicious, an investigator’s report provided to the medical examiner said her death was “a probable suicide overdose.” The medical examiner later testified that, had the “case been presented . . . as a suspicious death or homicide,” he would have taken more photographs of the body and conducted a more thorough examination. The medical examiner noted “sharp force injuries on her left wrist . . . in three separate locations,” a bruise on her lip, an abrasion on her cheek, and a laceration to her lower leg. Uta also had internal hemorrhages in her neck, which could have been sustained by a “broad and/or soft blunt object being applied in that location,” and petechiae (burst capillaries) in her right eye, each of which were consistent with strangulation. Uta had a near-lethal dose of Xanax in her system, but there were no pill remnants in her stomach. The medical examiner was “not looking specifically for an injection site anywhere,” because the case was brought to him as a probable suicide, but he testified that any of the injuries on Uta’s body “could potentially obscure an injection site” if that was how the Xanax got into her system. The medical examiner explained that the nature of Uta’s wounds was “not like anything [he] had ever seen in a suicide,” because they appeared to be defensive rather than self-inflicted, and that he had concerns that the police were “dealing with a homicide.”

¶39 After conducting the autopsy, the medical examiner concluded that Uta’s cause of death was drowning but could not determine the manner of death. Based on his concerns that the manner of death may have been homicide, the medical examiner asked the officers to meet with him to discuss his findings. Because he could not determine how the Xanax got into her system, he asked the officers if they were conducting further investigation. The sergeant in charge of the case at that time “basically [said] that we think this is a suicide, period.” The medical examiner told the officers that he was “not going to call this a suicide,” and that the manner of death was “undetermined” based on what he knew. The medical examiner explained that the scene of the crime was “suspicious,” that it appeared “more consistent with homicide than anything else,” and that “but for the Xanax” in Uta’s system, he “would have certified the death as a homicide.”

¶40 A few weeks after the medical examiner performed the autopsy, the investigation stalled. Between November 2011 and November 2012, the boyfriend, an ex-boyfriend, the eldest son, and some of Uta’s other family members kept pressing the police to investigate the case as a homicide. Finally, in November 2012, the investigation resumed in earnest.

¶41 A crime scene reconstructionist reviewed the photographs taken by the investigators the night Uta’s body was found, visited Uta’s house after it had been cleaned, and reviewed the items collected from the scene. The reconstructionist determined that Uta had been murdered and that the murderer had staged the scene to look like a suicide. The reconstructionist, who had special training and expertise in “blood pattern interpretation,” analyzed the blood patterns on Uta’s comforter and fitted sheet and concluded that a “violent struggle” occurred and that Uta struggled “under a restraint.” The reconstructionist also analyzed Uta’s bloodied tank top that had been folded and laid over the side of the bathtub. Although there was one saturated spot on the chest where it appeared Uta had held her bleeding wrist against her body, there was “no hand transfer” of blood onto the tank top where one would expect to see it if Uta had removed the tank top herself. The reconstructionist opined that the bloodstains in the bathroom under the windowsill and on the sink appeared to have occurred while Uta was being pushed into the bathroom. The bloodstains were not consistent with Uta being “intoxicated and stumbling around her house on her own” because there were no apparent patterns on the walls of someone staggering or touching surfaces to get from the bedroom to the bathroom.

¶42 Forensic testing also revealed that there were bloody shoeprints in the bathroom and the bedroom and that there was a bloody spot above Uta’s headboard. These blood stains initially went undetected because they had been cleaned up before the boyfriend discovered Uta’s body and first responders arrived at the scene. A crime scene technician discovered these bloodstains using a special chemical that changes color when it comes into contact with blood protein, which helped to make the “partially visible” or “faint” bloodstains in the bedroom and on the bathroom floor more visible.

¶43 Unlike the faint bloodstains that were overlooked by the first responders, dried-blood shoeprints had been immediately apparent in Uta’s kitchen. The crime scene reconstructionist explained that those stains would not have come from “rehydrated blood” because if the blood had dried and a person with a wet shoe stepped into the blood and started walking, that person “might get flakes . . . [or] portions” of blood, but it would not make a full bloody shoeprint. The reconstructionist concluded that the evidence showed another person had been present and attacked Uta and that “this scene was a homicide that was staged to look like a suicide.”

¶44 Investigators searched to find where the Xanax may have come from. Uta was never prescribed Xanax, she had never told anyone she had taken it, and no prescription bottle for it was found at her house. Even though Uta sometimes stored her medication in film canisters, those canisters were always labeled. Further, Uta kept a yearly “medicine calendar” in which she dutifully documented the medications she took, the amount she took, and her “level of wellness” related to those medications. Nowhere on these calendars did Uta document taking Xanax.

¶45 On the other hand, Wall had twice prescribed himself .5 milligrams of Xanax following the divorce. And, just four months before Uta’s death, Wall wrote a prescription for the highest dosage of immediate release Xanax, which is 2 milligrams, and filled that prescription at a pharmacy that he had never used before or since. Wall claimed that he filled this prescription for his mother who lived in California, but in their initial interviews with investigators, Wall’s parents could not confirm whether they ever received such a medication.

¶46 At the crime scene, the investigators collected, among other things, a pillowcase and scrapings from underneath Uta’s fingernails to be tested for DNA evidence. Using different techniques, investigators extracted DNA samples from each of these items. The forensic analysis revealed that Wall was a possible contributor to the DNA located on the pillowcase, but Wall could not be included or excluded as a possible contributor to the male DNA located under Uta’s fingernails. Uta’s ex-boyfriend, the boyfriend, and the first responders were all excluded as possible contributors to the DNA located under Uta’s fingernails.

¶47 More than two years after Uta’s death, the State charged Wall with murder. During the four-week jury trial, the State presented the evidence detailed above. The jury also heard, among other things, from two forensic pathologists who were given Uta’s autopsy report with photographs, police reports, crime scene photographs, crime laboratory reports, photographs of Wall’s face taken on September 27, 2011, the report from Wall’s eye doctor, the preliminary hearing testimony of the medical examiner, and Uta’s healthcare reports. Both agreed that Uta’s wounds to her wrists and leg were not self-inflicted and were instead defensive wounds. They both determined that, although there was a near-lethal dose of Xanax in her system, the low level of Xanax in Uta’s stomach was consistent with either the drug being injected into her body or swallowed as a slurry­ meaning that the pills had been crushed and mixed with a liquid. Both of the forensic pathologists concluded that Uta’s manner of death was homicide.

¶48 The jury convicted Wall of murder. Wall now appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶49 Wall argues that the evidence of guilt was insufficient to support the jury’s verdict “because the inference that [Wall] killed [Uta] is less likely than the inference that [Uta] killed herself, whether accidentally or intentionally.” “In considering an insufficiency-of-evidence claim, we review the evidence and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in a light most favorable to the verdict.” State v. Jones, 2015 UT 19, ¶ 15, 345 P.3d 1195 (cleaned up). “We will reverse 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.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶50 Wall next argues that the district court erroneously admitted certain DNA evidence through expert testimony. We review the district court’s decision to admit expert testimony under an abuse-of-discretion standard, and “we will not reverse a decision to admit or exclude expert testimony unless the decision exceeds the limits of reasonability.” Walker v. Hansen, 2003 UT App 237, ¶ 12, 74 P.3d 635 (cleaned up).

¶51 Wall also argues that his trial counsel “was ineffective for failing to object when the State mischaracterized the DNA results” in closing argument. “An ineffective assistance of counsel claim raised for the first time on appeal presents a question of law. In such a situation, 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. Archuleta, 2019 UT App 136, ¶ 17, 449 P.3d 223 (cleaned up).

ANALYSIS

I. Sufficiency of the Evidence

¶52 Wall argues that “the evidence is insufficient to exclude reasonable doubt.” Specifically, he argues that “the State’s construal of circumstantial evidence . . . that [Uta] was attacked, restrained, and injected with Xanax, all without leaving restraint marks on her body or any DNA evidence . . . was physically possible,” but “it [was] not the most reasonable explanation.” Instead, he claims that the most reasonable explanation is that Uta’s death was an accident or a suicide.

¶53 To succeed on a sufficiency of the evidence challenge, the appellant “has the burden to marshal the evidence in support of the verdict and then demonstrate that the evidence is insufficient when viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict.” State v. Jones, 2015 UT 19, ¶ 68, 345 P.3d 1195 (cleaned up). On appeal, we do not reweigh the evidence presented to the jury. “When the evidence presented is conflicting or disputed, the jury serves as the exclusive judge of both the credibility of witnesses and the weight to be given particular evidence.” State v. Workman, 852 P.2d 981, 984 (Utah 1993). “Ordinarily, a reviewing court may not reassess credibility or reweigh the evidence, but must resolve conflicts in the evidence in favor of the jury verdict.” Id. We are thus restricted to “evaluat[ing] whether the evidence is so inconclusive or inherently improbable that it could not support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id.

¶54 Wall concedes throughout his brief that “suicide and homicide are at least equally probable.” He says that all of the evidence is “consistent with homicide” but that the same evidence is at least “equally consistent” with suicide and that some evidence is “more consistent” with suicide. In making this argument, Wall relies on language from State v. Cristobal, 2010 UT App 228, 238 P.3d 1096. In that case, we suggested that “[w]hen the evidence supports more than one possible conclusion, none more likely than the other, the choice of one possibility over another can be no more than speculation.” Id. ¶ 16. But as our supreme court has since clarified, “the fact that we can identify an ‘equally’ plausible alternative inference is not nearly enough to set [a] verdict aside.” State v. Ashcraft, 2015 UT 5, ¶ 25, 349 P.3d 664. On appeal, “[t]he question presented is not whether some other (innocent) inference might have been reasonable,” but “simply whether the inference adopted by the jury was sustainable.” Id. ¶ 27.

¶55 Wall argues that the jury’s verdict was not based on reasonable inferences, but on speculation. He posits that the “distinction [between reasonable inferences and speculation] turns on whether there are equally likely interpretations of the evidence.” Here, because “the evidence and inferences did not preclude the reasonable alternative hypothesis presented by the defense,” he contends that the jury’s verdict was based on speculation, which does not constitute proof beyond a reasonable doubt. (Quoting State v. Cardona-Gueton, 2012 UT App 336, ¶ 11, 291 P.3d 847 (cleaned up).) Despite the broad language used in some of our past opinions, “the law is well established that the existence of one or more alternate reasonable hypotheses does not necessarily prevent the jury from concluding that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” Cardona-Gueton, 2012 UT App 336, ¶ 11 (cleaned up). “It is the exclusive province of the jury to weigh the competing theories of the case, in light of the evidence presented and the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, and to conclude which one they believe.” Id. (cleaned up). Therefore, “despite the existence of theoretically ‘reasonable’ hypotheses, it is within the province of the jury to judge the credibility of the testimony, assign weight to the evidence, and reject these alternate hypotheses.” State v. Blubaugh, 904 P.2d 688, 694–95 (Utah Ct. App. 1995). Indeed, “a finding that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is necessarily a finding that any alternative hypothesis of innocence presented at trial was not reasonable under the jury’s view of the evidence.” Cardona-Gueton, 2012 UT App 336, ¶ 12.

¶56 Consequently, it is not enough for Wall to show that the evidence would have permitted a reasonable juror to accept the defense’s theory that Uta’s death was an accident or suicide. “These are fair arguments for counsel to present to the jury in closing.” Ashcraft, 2015 UT 5, ¶ 24. But once the jury has rejected the alternative explanation offered by the defense, “an appellate court will reverse such a finding only where no reasonable juror could have taken that view of the evidence.” Cardona-Gueton, 2012 UT App 336, ¶ 12. “The question presented is not whether we can conceive of alternative (innocent) inferences to draw from individual pieces of evidence, or even whether we would have reached the verdict embraced by the jury.” Ashcraft, 2015 UT 5, ¶ 24. Instead, it is “simply whether the jury’s verdict is reasonable in light of all of the evidence taken cumulatively, under a standard of review that yields deference to all reasonable inferences supporting the jury’s verdict.” Id.

¶57 The jury’s determination that Uta was murdered is well supported by the evidence admitted at trial. As to the crime scene, multiple witnesses testified that there was evidence of a “violent struggle.” Items throughout Uta’s bedroom were knocked over onto the floor and the bed, even though there was no blood pattern on the walls to suggest that Uta might have caused the disarray by stumbling around the room on her own. The blood patterns on Uta’s comforter and sheet showed that Uta struggled “under a restraint.” The bloodstains under the bathroom windowsill and sink were consistent with Uta being pushed into the bathroom with blood on her hands. The lack of hand-transfer bloodstains on Uta’s tank top suggested that she had not removed it herself. And although the defense expert drew different conclusions from this same evidence, the weight to be given to such conflicting expert opinions is solely the province of the jury. See State v. Berchtold, 357 P.2d 183, 186 (Utah 1960).

¶58 As to Uta’s injuries, she sustained defensive wounds on her arms and on the back of one of her legs, suggesting that she tried to defend herself from an attacker. She had hemorrhaging in her neck and petechiae in her eye, each of which is consistent with strangulation. She also had male DNA under her fingernails, which is consistent with scratching an attacker.

¶59 Additional evidence supported the prosecution’s theory that a second person left the home shortly after Uta had been subdued. The blinds in Uta’s bathroom and bedroom—which were normally open—had been shut, and bloody shoeprints in those rooms had been wiped clean, as well as a bloody spot above Uta’s headboard. In the kitchen, which had no blinds, no effort had been made to clean up dried-blood shoeprints. The prints did not match any of the first responders’ or the boyfriend’s shoes. In any event, the reconstructionist testified that Uta’s blood would have dried in the hours between her death and the discovery of her body and that the prints were inconsistent with the later transfer of rehydrated blood. Evidence that someone had tracked fresh blood through the kitchen around the time of Uta’s death and had tried to clean up blood in those rooms where the activity could take place behind closed blinds was strong evidence supporting the jury’s conclusion that Uta was murdered.

¶60 Other evidence further undercut the defense’s theory that Uta’s death was a suicide or accidental overdose. Without exception, the witnesses who knew Uta testified that she was not suicidal. To the contrary, she was excited about a breakthrough at work, was looking forward to an upcoming trip with the younger children, and was making plans up until the night before her death. And although there was a near-lethal dose of Xanax found in Uta’s system, there was no evidence that Uta had ever been prescribed or taken Xanax, and no prescription bottles or labeled film canisters for the drug were found at Uta’s house. In addition, there were no pill remnants in her stomach that would account for the concentration of Xanax in her system, supporting the prosecution’s theory that Uta was either injected with or forced to swallow a slurry containing a high concentration of Xanax.

¶61 Two forensic pathologists reviewed all of the relevant reports from the police, medical practitioners, and the autopsy and testified that the cause of death was homicide. Even the medical examiner, who had been told that Uta’s death was “a probable suicide overdose,” found the evidence to be “more consistent with homicide than anything else,” refused “to call this a suicide,” and “would have certified the death as a homicide” had it not been for the ambiguity created by the Xanax in Uta’s system. The medical examiner’s uncertainty was understandable because, as the crime scene reconstructionist explained, “this scene was a homicide that was staged to look like a suicide.” Based on all of this evidence, a reasonable jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Uta was murdered.

¶62 There was also sufficient evidence to support the jury’s determination that Wall was the murderer. Wall had a well-established motive to kill Uta. They were involved in an acrimonious ongoing custody dispute, and those familiar with him knew that Wall “despised” Uta. He often complained that she made his “life difficult” and blamed her for his unhappiness. Mere days before Uta’s body was discovered, Wall informed a new acquaintance that he was “getting his kids back.” And after her death, Wall told their youngest son that “maybe it’s better that she’s dead.”

¶63 Wall also had the opportunity to commit the murder. He could not account for his whereabouts around the time of Uta’s death. In his first police interview, Wall told the detectives that he had gone to a gas station near his house to purchase eggs between 6:45 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. and then returned home to make breakfast. But his older children indicated that he was already gone when they awoke for school around 6:00 a.m. and had not returned by the time the eldest son left for school at 7:30 a.m. In a deposition more than a year later, he claimed that he woke up early and went to the hospital to work on charts, even though a hospital witness testified that doctors know that they cannot access the medical records office before 8:00 a.m. Wall claimed that he could not access the hospital because he had forgotten his identification and then decided to go on a pre-dawn hike, despite having left no word for his children, as had been his practice. No one could corroborate his whereabouts between the time the children went to bed the night before and 7:05 a.m. the next morning when he was spotted driving his car some distance from his house.[3] He later appeared for work disheveled and wearing the same clothes as the day before as if he had not been home to sleep or get ready for work. Not only did Wall have the time and opportunity to commit the murder, the jury had ample reason to find his evolving story incredible.

¶64 The lack of forced entry at Uta’s home also supported the conclusion that the crime was not committed by a stranger. When Uta’s body was discovered, the door to her house was unlocked, even though Uta always locked it before bed. The eldest son testified that Uta kept a spare key hidden outside the house for the children and that the key was missing after Uta’s death. The jury could reasonably infer that Wall knew of the spare key and used it to enter the house on the night of the murder.

¶65 Wall also had access to the drug used to subdue Uta. In fact, he had recently written a prescription for the highest dose of Xanax, purportedly for his mother who lived in California, although she could not confirm receiving it. The jury could reasonably conclude that Wall filled the prescription at a pharmacy that he had not used before or since (and later feigned ignorance of the drug) to make it harder to link him to the drug he used in the course of killing Uta.

¶66 The jury could also reasonably conclude that Wall’s behavior and statements showed consciousness of guilt. When the police asked him if he killed Uta, he responded with equivocal statements such as, “I don’t know, I don’t think I did it,” “I don’t think I was there,” and “If I did it, I made a mistake, and I am sorry. But I don’t think I did it.” When Wall was released after the police interview, he was surprised and said, “[B]ut I’m a monster.” When he returned home, Wall announced to the children, “Uta’s dead and they think I did it.” Rather than comfort the children, Wall acted “distraught,” curled into the fetal position and cried, and forced the children to take care of him because “he was scared he would do something he would regret.” He kept calling himself a monster and repeatedly asked the children, “What if I did it and I don’t remember?”

¶67 Furthermore, Wall volunteered implausible explanations for physical evidence that might connect him to the crime. Even before Uta’s body was discovered, Wall tried to explain the scratch on his eye by telling everyone that he had recently started sleeping on his porch and that his dog scratched him while he slept. No one ever saw him sleep on the porch, and no one had ever seen the dog scratch anyone. And to those who testified, the scratch to Wall’s eye looked like it was caused by a fingernail. Wall also had scratches on his arms and legs that he quickly covered up when people noticed. When interviewed by police, he was vague about the last time he had seen or touched Uta and whether he might have been in her house around the time of her death. He told the police that his cell phone was stolen from his unsecured car that same day but later asked his eldest son, “If the police found my phone [at Uta’s house] what could I say to refute that?”

¶68 Significantly, Wall offered new explanations when he knew that DNA test results were pending. When he was deposed in the wrongful death lawsuit, Wall offered a new story that would explain why his DNA might be found under Uta’s fingernails. For the first time, Wall claimed that he had not only seen Uta again after picking up the children on the night of her death, but that the two of them had gotten into an altercation and that she had struck him in the face. He also claimed that she had once tried to seduce him in her bedroom, which could explain why his DNA might be found at the crime scene. And Wall took care to mention that Uta had leaned into the back seat of his car the night before her death to give their daughter a hug, touching the part of the seat that the investigators collected to search for DNA evidence, although her DNA ultimately was not found in that sample. The jury could reasonably infer that Wall offered these explanations because he knew that the results of the DNA testing could link him to the crime.

¶69 While this summary is by no means an exhaustive review of all of the evidence supporting Wall’s guilt, it is more than sufficient to demonstrate that the jury’s verdict was supported by substantial evidence. This is not a case in which the evidence was so inconclusive or inherently improbable that it could not support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The State presented sufficient evidence to support the jury’s conclusion that Uta was murdered and that Wall was her murderer.

II. Admissibility of DNA Evidence

¶70 Wall next argues that the district court should have excluded the DNA evidence that was extracted from Uta’s pillowcase because “the State failed to make the threshold showing that [the forensic laboratory’s] methodology was reliable or reliably applied” under rule 702(b) of the Utah Rules of Evidence. Rule 702(b) provides that “[s]cientific, technical or other specialized knowledge may serve as the basis for expert testimony only if there is a threshold showing that the principles or methods that are underlying the testimony” are “reliable,” “based upon sufficient facts or data,” and “have been reliably applied to the facts.” Utah R. Evid. 702(b).

¶71 In applying rule 702(b), the district court “performs an important gatekeeping function, intended to ensure that only reliable expert testimony will be presented to the jury.” Gunn Hill Dairy Props., LLC v. Los Angeles Dep’t of Water & Power, 2012 UT App 20, ¶ 31, 269 P.3d 980. But this function is “limited” to “ensuring a minimal ‘threshold’ of reliability for the knowledge that serves as the basis of an expert’s opinion” and must not “displace the province of the factfinder to weigh the evidence.” State v. Jones, 2015 UT 19, ¶ 26, 345 P.3d 1195 (cleaned up). Although “the line between assessing reliability and weighing evidence can be elusive,” appellate courts “must be mindful of this important distinction because the factfinder bears the ultimate responsibility for evaluating the accuracy, reliability, and weight of the testimony.” Id. (cleaned up). “When performing their gatekeeping function, judges should approach expert testimony with rational skepticism. But the degree of scrutiny that should be applied to expert testimony by trial judges is not so rigorous as to be satisfied only by scientific or other specialized principles or methods that are free of controversy or that meet any fixed set of criteria fashioned to test reliability.” Gunn Hill Dairy Props., 2012 UT App 20, ¶ 32 (cleaned up).

¶72 Before trial, Wall moved to exclude, among other things, the DNA results from the pillowcase, arguing that he “should be excluded as a possible contributor” because some alleles were missing from the sample and because the “statistical probability” calculated by the forensic laboratory was unreliable. The district court held an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the evidence and expert testimony met the minimum threshold of reliability necessary for its admission.

¶73 At that hearing, the court heard testimony from two experts from the forensic laboratory that conducted the DNA tests and one expert for the defense. All of the experts testified to DNA composition in general and forensic DNA testing. DNA is made up of twenty-three pairs of chromosomes and is found in most cells of the human body. Twenty-two of the chromosomal pairs control non-sex traits (autosomal) and the twenty-third chromosome is sex determining—either male or female. Except for identical twins, no person has the same DNA as another person. But only one percent of human DNA differs from person to person based on short tandem repeats (STRs), which are patterns of alleles at a certain locus within human DNA. “At each given locus, you would expect to see two alleles because you get one from your mother and one from your father.” But sometimes there is only one allele at a given locus, which occurs “when you get the same [allele] from both your mother and your father.” Forensic DNA analysts focus on these patterns to discover the identity of the source of the DNA.

¶74 When conducting an autosomal STR analysis, as was done in this case, the forensic analyst targets sixteen of the individualized STR locations along the twenty-two autosomal chromosomes. There are five steps to the test: extraction, quantification (determining how much DNA was isolated at the targeted sixteen loci), amplification (creating copies of the DNA sample by splitting the DNA “ladder” down the middle and re-bonding the DNA to create a sufficient number of copies of the sample for testing), the actual testing (using florescent dye and an electrophoresis machine), and analysis.

¶75 The experts further explained that, during the testing stage, the analyst injects the DNA with fluorescent dye and runs it through an electrophoresis machine, which measures the alleles’ fluorescence in “relative fluorescence units” (RFUs). Then, a software program creates a graph of this data and shows the “peaks” of each allele (i.e., the strength of the fluorescence) at the sixteen tested loci. The peaks will appear taller or shorter depending on how much DNA is present at that allele and a taller peak means it “has more DNA.” If an allele reaches a peak of fifty RFUs, then it has reached the “analytical threshold” and the analyst can rely on that as a match of alleles on that locus between the crime-scene sample and the possible-contributor sample. If an allele’s peak is below fifty RFUs, it is unclear whether the allele represents DNA or “background noise.”

¶76 After providing this background, the analysts from the forensic laboratory (the State’s experts) then testified directly to the DNA samples and comparisons in this case. Relevant to the sample collected from the pillowcase using the M-Vac process,[4] the State’s experts found that Wall’s entire autosomal STR profile was present in that sample, but that three of the alleles were detected below the analytical threshold. Because three alleles did not meet the analytical threshold, the State’s experts followed the laboratory’s policy to conduct a second amplification test to see if the results were reproduced. The second test produced the same results,[5] and the analysts determined that Wall could not be excluded as a possible contributor because a “repeat” event “gives more credence or reliability to that event.” The State’s experts explained that a finding that a person cannot be excluded as a possible contributor does not mean that the person is an “actual” contributor. The defense’s expert disagreed with the laboratory’s policy to retest the sample and concluded that any DNA sample with an allele that does not reach the analytical threshold should amount to an exclusion of the individual as a possible contributor to the sample.

¶77 Following the hearing, the court issued a detailed written order denying Wall’s motion to exclude the evidence. The court explained that although the director of the forensic laboratory determined that there was “questionable activity” with respect to alleles on three loci within the DNA sample, it is the laboratory’s policy “not to disregard it.” Instead, the director determined that these results showed that Wall could not be excluded as a possible contributor to the DNA sample because the three loci where the alleles were recorded “below the analytic threshold at the points where [Wall’s] alleles should have been” showed that “it is possible these loci could contain” Wall’s alleles based on the results of the repeat amplification. The court found that many laboratories have similar policies and that this particular laboratory’s “policy has been subjected to third party assessment and has been approved by auditing companies and at least one previous director of the lab.” The court explained that although there was conflicting expert testimony from the State and the defense regarding the reliability of the results of this DNA sample, it was “not the court’s role to decide which expert is correct,” and the court determined that Wall’s “objection to this evidence is a matter of weight rather than reliability.” The court concluded that the State “made a threshold showing of reliability” and admitted the evidence.

¶78 On appeal, Wall asserts that the forensic laboratory’s “director . . . testified that the [laboratory’s] method of including [Wall] as a possible contributor was unreliable.” But as articulated above, the director testified that data below the analytical threshold is “not reliable” with respect to conclusively including or excluding an individual for statistical purposes, but that the laboratory is “not going to put blinders on and just completely ignore it.” This is because the presence of “some activity” or “amplification” at these loci shows that something is “detected.” The director explained that ignoring the below-threshold information with respect to certain alleles and excluding an individual as a possible contributor can make “exclusion inaccurate.”

¶79 Wall also asserts that the “State did not demonstrate that . . . [the laboratory’s] methods were reliable and reliably applied to include [Wall] as a possible contributor.” But the district court made specific findings that the laboratory’s policy against excluding a person where a possible match is detected below analytical thresholds is consistent with the practice of other laboratories and that recent audits and third-party assessments have approved this policy. The district court acted well within its discretion in relying on this evidence to conclude that the laboratory’s methods met the minimum threshold of reliability.

¶80 We therefore conclude that Wall has not shown that the district court exceeded its discretion when it admitted the DNA evidence and expert testimony under rule 702(b) of the Utah Rules of Evidence.

III. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

¶81 Finally, Wall argues that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to object to the prosecutors’ statements in closing argument that he asserts misconstrued the DNA evidence.[6] To prove that trial counsel was ineffective, Wall must show that trial “counsel’s performance was deficient, in that it fell below an objective standard of reasonable professional judgment,” and “that counsel’s deficient performance was prejudicial.” State v. Litherland, 2000 UT 76, ¶ 19, 12 P.3d 92; see also Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687–88 (1984). The “failure to establish either prong of the test is fatal to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim.” State v. Torres, 2018 UT App 113, ¶ 14, 427 P.3d 550 (cleaned up). Consequently, “there is no reason for a court deciding an ineffective assistance claim . . . to address both components of the inquiry if the defendant makes an insufficient showing on one.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697. Here, Wall has not shown that his counsel performed deficiently.

¶82 When we review a claim of deficient performance, we “presume[] that counsel has rendered adequate assistance,” and “if the challenged act or omission might be considered sound trial strategy, we will not find that it demonstrates inadequacy of counsel.” State v. Kingston, 2002 UT App 103, ¶ 8, 46 P.3d 761 (cleaned up). “When we review an attorney’s failure to object to a prosecutor’s statements during closing argument, the question is not whether the prosecutor’s comments were proper, but whether they were so improper that counsel’s only defensible choice was to interrupt those comments with an objection.” State v. Houston, 2015 UT 40, ¶ 76, 353 P.3d 55 (cleaned up). This is because “counsel for both sides have considerable latitude in their closing arguments. They have the right to fully discuss from their perspectives the evidence and all inferences and deductions it supports.” Id. (cleaned up). “Moreover, a prosecutor has the duty and right to argue the case based on the total picture shown by the evidence.” Id. (cleaned up). Through this lens, we review the three points in the State’s closing arguments to which Wall claims any reasonably competent trial counsel would have lodged an objection.

¶83 First, Wall challenges a statement made by the prosecutor in the first part of the State’s closing arguments. The prosecutor stated, “We have male DNA being found under [Uta’s] right-hand fingernail clippings. I would submit to you it was as if [Uta] was standing in this courtroom and pointing to [Wall] as her killer.” Wall argues that this statement violated the court’s order related to DNA evidence, which informed the parties that they could not use the DNA evidence to show conclusively that he was the contributor to the DNA, and therefore trial counsel was deficient in failing to object to it. The prosecutor correctly noted that male DNA was found under Uta’s fingernail, not that Wall’s DNA was underneath her fingernail, but essentially told the jury that the reasonable inference was that Wall’s DNA was under Uta’s fingernail. Assuming without deciding that this statement was improper, trial counsel may have based his decision to forgo an objection on sound trial strategy, choosing instead to undermine the State’s characterization of the fingernail-DNA evidence in his own closing argument.[7] This is exactly what trial counsel did. Trial counsel argued that the DNA evidence was “just meaningless,” it “doesn’t prove anything” because Wall was excluded as a possible contributor to some of the DNA samples, the DNA test results were “unreliable,” and the DNA evidence “doesn’t put [Wall] in [Uta’s] house.” We therefore conclude counsel was not deficient in failing to object to the State’s characterization of the fingernail-DNA evidence. See State v. King, 2012 UT App 203, ¶ 14, 283 P.3d 980 (explaining that counsel performs deficiently only where there is no “conceivable tactical basis for counsel’s actions” (cleaned up)).

¶84 Next, Wall argues that in the State’s rebuttal closing argument, the prosecutor improperly told the jury that it was in a better position to determine Uta’s cause of death because the medical examiner who wrote the report “didn’t know about all the DNA work” and that counsel should have objected to that statement. The challenged statement was a direct response to statements made by Wall’s trial counsel in his closing argument. Specifically, Wall’s counsel made the following argument:

Here’s the part you guys have been waiting for, the conclusion. There’s been a lot of evidence introduced here. And we’ve heard a lot of evidence about the relationship of two people, about their lives, their mental states, their problems. You’ve heard a lot of evidence about forensics, about shoe identification, blood stains and pathology. But the most critical testimony in this case, the most critical input came from the state medical examiner.

He went on to explain that the medical examiner’s testimony was key because it “indicated that [Uta’s death] was either a homicide or suicide” and that the medical examiner’s “opinions were affected by the presence of Xanax in [Uta’s] body.” The defense theory was that the medical examiner’s inability to conclude one way or the other “establishe[d] reasonable doubt.”

¶85 In rebuttal, the prosecutor opened with the following response:

I’d like to start first with the last thing that was said [in trial counsel’s closing argument], the critical piece of evidence was the medical examiner. And I want you to remember what the medical examiner said because you all have a better position than he did when he wrote that report. He said he didn’t have [Uta’s] medical and mental health records. He didn’t know about all the DNA work. He didn’t know about all the witnesses that [testified]. You, ladies and gentlemen, know more about this case than he did when he wrote his report . . . . You know everything. You know all the witnesses who said she was not suicidal, that she didn’t do this. And so you can confidently find this individual guilty.

¶86 The prosecutor’s statement that the medical examiner “didn’t know about all the DNA work” is an accurate characterization of the evidence. The medical examiner testified that he did not have all of Uta’s medical records, all of the police reports or witness statements, the crime scene reconstructionist’s report, the bloodstain expert reports, or “any of the DNA reports that had been done.” Moreover, the prosecutor’s statement did not suggest, as Wall claims, that the DNA evidence alone conclusively established that Uta had been murdered. Instead, the prosecutor pointed to “everything” the jury heard during the trial that the medical examiner did not know, including not just the DNA evidence, but also information about Uta’s medical and mental health records and the testimony of numerous witnesses offered during the four-week trial. In context, the prosecutor’s argument neither misstated the evidence nor overemphasized the importance of the admittedly inconclusive DNA evidence. As a result, any objection made by trial counsel to this statement would have been futile and did not constitute deficient performance. See State v. Perez-Avila, 2006 UT App 71, ¶ 7, 131 P.3d 864 (“It is well settled that counsel’s performance at trial is not deficient if counsel refrains from making futile objections, motions, or requests.”).

¶87 Wall also argues that trial counsel should have objected to the prosecutor’s statements about DNA found on Uta’s comforter. One of the forensic laboratory’s analysts testified that the laboratory collected DNA using different methods on five areas of Uta’s comforter and submitted them for testing. Four of the test results either excluded Wall or were inconclusive for male DNA. The fifth test included Wall as possible contributor. The analyst also conceded on cross-examination that, based on the results of the test, all four children’s alleles are accounted for [and Wall’s] alleles are accounted for” in that sample. Wall contends that the prosecutor erroneously “insisted the DNA must be from [Wall] rather than the Wall children” because the State mischaracterized how the DNA samples were collected from the comforter when it said that the DNA came from “pinpoint location[s].”

¶88 As an initial matter, we note that trial counsel moved to exclude all of the DNA evidence prior to trial based on “inaccurate statistical evidence for DNA mixtures” but later withdrew that motion with respect to the DNA collected from Uta’s comforter. Trial counsel chose instead to advance the theory at trial—through the defense’s own expert testimony and through cross-examination of the State’s experts—that there was a “possibility of all of the children being [contributors]” to some of the DNA samples, including the comforter, and therefore “it’s impossible to determine if [Wall’s] DNA is in that sample.” Trial counsel reiterated this point in closing argument:

Now [the State] is probably going to talk to you about if [Wall’s] and [Uta’s] allele charts are both present, if their genetic patterns are both there, then all the kids are going to be there too. Use your common sense. You have four kids living in the house and [Uta] living in the house . . . . Whose DNA is going to be on the comforter? The people living in the house.

. . . .

And if you remember the hypothetical that I gave to [the State’s expert] that if all the children used the towel when they’d been out hiking or sweating and had DNA placed in the towel . . . to a sufficient degree that it could be tested, that even if [Wall] was in Australia, . . . he would be found to be a possible contributor.

¶89 In the State’s rebuttal closing argument, the prosecutor reminded the jury that the two eldest children testified they had “never been on [Uta’s] bed for a long time . . . [s]o their DNA won’t be there.” He also said that the DNA was not “all over the comforter” and was instead at “a very pinpoint location.” He further explained:

That’s where you are going to find [Wall’s] DNA. And it’s not going to be because the children were there, because you need to have all four children to be on that same spot. And you’re going to tell me that at these particular locations all four children went and equally touched that spot to make that combination? That’s ridiculous. The more likely and the real reasonable is that one person touched it, and it’s [Wall].

¶90 It is unclear why trial counsel would be deficient for failing to object to the very argument that he forecasted for the jury in his own closing argument. Trial counsel had already presented a counterargument to the State’s theory by providing the jury an alternative explanation for why certain DNA samples could have included Wall’s DNA without Wall having ever touched the relevant items. And trial counsel reiterated at many points throughout trial and in closing argument that the DNA evidence was “meaningless” because Wall was excluded as a possible contributor to some of the DNA samples and that he should have been excluded as a possible contributor to other DNA samples because the laboratory’s methods were “unreliable.” Trial counsel’s strategy related to this DNA evidence was clear, and his strategic decision not to object to the State’s alternative characterization of this same evidence was not deficient.

¶91 Further, any objection to the prosecutor’s statement would have been futile. See Perez-Avila, 2006 UT App 71, ¶ 7. Just as trial counsel was free to argue that it was more reasonable that the children’s DNA had combined on the comforter to create a sample that happened to be consistent with Wall’s DNA, the State was free to argue that it was more likely that a single person, Wall, was the contributor. See Houston, 2015 UT 40, ¶ 76 (recognizing that “counsel for both sides have considerable latitude in their closing arguments,” that “they have the right to fully discuss from their perspectives the evidence and all inferences and deductions it supports,” and that the State has “the duty and right to argue the case based on the total picture shown by the evidence” (cleaned up)).

¶92 Relatedly, Wall has not persuaded us that trial counsel was deficient in failing to object to the prosecutor’s statement that the DNA was extracted at a “pinpoint location” and that all of the children would have had to touch that exact spot. The State’s expert testified that the DNA was collected via M-Vac only on the locations where there were bloodstains. Thus, the samples were not drawn from the entire comforter, as Wall suggests. And trial counsel could have reasonably determined that objecting would have been futile and would have drawn greater attention to that evidence. See Perez-Avila, 2006 UT App 71, ¶ 7; see also State v. Ott, 2010 UT 1, ¶ 39, 247 P.3d 344 (noting “that avoidance of drawing the jury’s attention to certain facts or over-emphasizing aspects of the facts is a well recognized trial strategy”).

¶93 “The object of an ineffectiveness claim is not to grade counsel’s performance.” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 697 (1984). Instead, we “must indulge a strong presumption that counsel’s conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.” Id. at 689. In this case, Wall has not shown “that the challenged actions cannot be considered sound strategy under the circumstances.” See State v. Torres, 2018 UT App 113, ¶ 16, 427 P.3d 550 (cleaned up).

CONCLUSION

¶94 We conclude that there was sufficient evidence to support Wall’s murder conviction. We further conclude that the district court did not exceed its discretion in admitting certain DNA evidence because the State made the threshold showing that the forensic laboratory’s methods and policies were reliable. Finally, Wall has not persuaded us that his trial counsel performed deficiently in failing to object to certain parts of the State’s closing arguments because the State did not mischaracterize the evidence and the arguments fairly responded to the theories argued by the defense.

¶95 Affirmed.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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[1] “This court typically does not include the names of crime victims, witnesses, or other innocent parties in its decisions. We make an exception in this case due to the considerable notoriety this criminal episode has attracted. The [victim’s] identity is well known, and obscuring her identity in this decision would serve no purpose.” State v. Chavez-Reyes, 2015 UT App 202, ¶ 2 n.2, 357 P.3d 1012. Additionally, although we generally refer to relevant parties by their last names, we will refer to the victim in this case as Uta because that is how all of the witnesses referred to her at trial.

[2] Wall claimed to have told Uta’s father, but Uta’s father had died before Uta and therefore could not corroborate this claim.

[3] On appeal, Wall makes much of the fact that the autopsy report did not document any changes to Uta’s skin, known as “washerwoman syndrome,” from having been immersed in water for a long period of time. Wall argues that the absence of such evidence conclusively proves that Uta’s death occurred shortly before her body was found in the evening rather than during the early morning hours when Wall had no alibi. But the medical examiner testified that, although he did not note washerwoman changes in his report, he had not been looking for them because the death had not been presented as a possible homicide. And there was conflicting testimony from defense and State experts about whether washerwoman changes could be seen in the autopsy photographs. The jury could reasonably conclude that the apparent absence of washerwoman syndrome was entitled to less weight than the defense believed it deserved.

[4] According to expert testimony, “[a]n M-Vac is basically like a DNA wet vac[uum]” that has a “buffer” in it that will not degrade or harm the DNA sample. The M-Vac soaks the targeted area and then “sucks up the liquid.” The liquid is “run through a series of filters” to extract the DNA from the targeted area for forensic analysis.

[5] One of the alleles that was above the analytical threshold in the first test was below the threshold in the second test. But the State’s experts explained in great detail why this could occur and why it did not undermine their confidence in that allele.

[6] In his opening brief, Wall argued that trial counsel was also ineffective for failing to object to certain statements elicited on direct examination of the State’s expert witnesses. But at oral argument, appellate counsel conceded that “the issue about the DNA is all about closing argument and closing argument only.” This court asked the clarifying question, “Your [ineffective assistance of counsel claim] is failure to object during closing arguments, not the failure to object during the expert testimony?” And appellate counsel responded, “That’s right.” We therefore do not address whether trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object during direct examination of the State’s expert witnesses.

[7] At oral argument, this court asked, “Why wouldn’t it be reasonable to wait and rebut the prosecutor’s statements during the defense’s closing argument rather than object?” And appellate counsel responded, “So far I’m with you,” apparently conceding that failing to object to this statement alone was not sufficient to establish deficient performance.

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What are some interesting facts about child support?

Unless the court orders otherwise (and I have yet, after 22 years in practice, to see a court order otherwise), if you lose your job, you still have to pay child support based upon the income you no longer have. Now this would never be the case if the parents were married. If a parent is the only or the primary breadwinner and suddenly loses his/her job or gets a drastic cut in pay (through no fault of the parent’s), the whole family would be expected to adjust to the reduction in income. Not so once child support is ordered. Once child support is ordered, the child support payor (obligor) is required to pay child support at the amount ordered regardless of whether the obligor has the ability to pay what’s ordered.

Another interesting aspect of child support is that child support is based upon what your ability to earn is, and not on what you choose to earn.

If you or your spouse came home from work today and said, “Honey, I’ve had enough of this rat race, I’m going to become self-employed. This means that while I’ll earn enough to meet our needs and our kids’ needs, we won’t have as much money as we use to, but I won’t have the depression and the headaches, or the mental and physical health problems that this job is causing me,” you could do that. You have the freedom to do that. If you’re married. But not if you’re divorced or never married the parent of your children.

Clearly, a parent is expected to provide sufficient financial support to provide the necessities of life for his/her children. Parents are expected to provide for their children’s basic needs, and unless a parent is a trust fund baby or has some other form of income other than through employment, parents are expected to earn money for the support of their children. But why and how could the law order a parent to provide for his/her children beyond the necessities of life, especially if the parent himself or herself has no desire to earn more money than what it takes to provide himself or herself with the necessities of life?

What if a parent graduates from medical school and realizes that he/she hates working as a doctor? What if a parent is making a lot of money in an extraordinarily dangerous job and no longer wishes to risk his/her life doing it? Child support orders don’t care.

If you can make a lot of money as a doctor as opposed to the teacher or artist you want to be, you will almost surely be ordered to pay child support based upon what you could earn as a doctor (the court can’t make you work as a doctor, but can order child support to be based upon the income you could/should be earning as a doctor), even if you are not working as a doctor.

If you’re making a lot of money working at that offshore oil rig that killed or maimed your buddy yesterday, and you’ve decided it’s time for you to get a different job that doesn’t put your life at risk, even though it may pay less than what you now earn in the life-threatening job, you will almost certainly be ordered to pay child support based upon what you earned (and could still be earning) at the life-threatening dangerous job, not at the job you want to work. Again, your spouse could never force you to work at a particular job or earn a particular amount of money if you were married, but when you get divorced, the court can effectively force you to keep working at a job you don’t want to do for the sake of paying “child support” not to your children but to your ex-spouse, who is free to spend that money however your ex-spouse wishes.

If you have historically worked overtime to help get you and your family out of debt, and your spouse happens to time the divorce action to occur while you’re still working overtime or shortly after you stopped working overtime, the court will almost surely base child support upon your historic earnings that include your overtime earnings, even if you never intended to work overtime on a permanent basis. You must pay child support based upon what you have historically earned, regardless of the adverse effect it’s having on your mental and/or physical health.

Child support orders like this deprive you of your freedom in the name of “it’s for the children!”

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-interesting-facts-about-child-support-in-the-USA/answer/Eric-Johnson-311?__nsrc__=4&__snid3__=5426433656&comment_id=112636526&comment_type=2

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Why do courts seem to rule against husbands so unfavorably regarding custody and alimony?

Sometimes a husband/father is legitimately ruled against in a child custody case because he is unfit to exercise custody. Sometimes that unfitness may be his own fault (he’s abusive and/or neglectful), other times the unfitness may be due to circumstances beyond his control (disabled or has a job and/or job schedule that is incompatible with exercising custody).

But where there is no parental unfitness, why do so many fathers lose on the issue of custody? Simple:

Sexism.

The idea (in some courts) that women are presumptively better parents than are men. The idea (in other courts) that no matter how well a man can prove himself to be a fit parent the conventional wisdom accepts the woman as an even better parent. The idea (in still other courts) that a mother’s contributions to a child’s upbringing are more important than a father’s.

Sometimes it’s institutionalized sexism. The “it’s been this way for so long, so it’s going to stay this way” way of thinking.

It is often subconscious sexism.

It is often sexism that is not malicious but born out of a sincerely held—though erroneous—belief (much like some people who are racist because they believe other races are inferior and not because of any kind of hatred for other races).

But it’s sexism just the same. Plain and simple.

Fortunately, sexist custody awards are quietly and relatively quickly (given how slowly the wheels of justice generally turn) becoming a thing of the past.

It’s getting harder and harder to rule against fit men on the issue of custody. Getting harder to justify the silly “reasons” that have been given for denying men sole or joint custody. Getting harder to write off men as generally uncaring, uninterested, and incapable as parents. Getting harder to justify the silly “reasons” that have been given for denying men sole or joint custody. Sadly (but more factually accurately), it’s getting harder to justify presuming all women generally to be “natural born” parental wonders.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

https://www.quora.com/Why-do-the-court-systems-seem-to-rule-against-husbands-so-unfavorably-in-regards-to-parental-rights-and-spousal-support/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

Have we reached the point where mothers are not immediately deemed the best candidates for child custody?

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Nebeker v. Orton – 2019 UT App 23 – custody and parent-time

2019 UT App 23

THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS

SHANE NEBEKER,
Appellant,
v.
TRISHA ANN ORTON,
Appellee.

Opinion

No. 20170438-CA

Filed February 14, 2019

Sixth District Court, Richfield Department
The Honorable Marvin D. Bagley
No. 154600140

Jared L. Peterson, Attorney for Appellant Benjamin Kearns, Attorney for Appellee

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

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1        Shane Nebeker (Father) and Trisha Ann Orton’s (Mother) extramarital relationship resulted in the birth of a son (Child). For the first eighteen months of Child’s life, Father saw him only a few times. Then, concerned about Mother’s illegal activities, Father took Child away from Mother without her consent. Sometime thereafter, Father and Mother worked out an extrajudicial, temporary custody arrangement that they perpetuated until a custody trial. After a bench trial, Mother was awarded primary physical custody of Child, and Father was awarded statutory minimum parent-time. Father appeals. We affirm in part—affirming the district court’s decision regarding primary custody—and reverse in part—reversing the district court’s decision related to Father’s parent-time.

BACKGROUND[1]

¶2Father and Mother are parents of Child, born in December 2013. Mother and Father ended their relationship before Child was born, and they lived about 100 miles apart. During the first eighteen months of Child’s life, Father saw Child on two occasions shortly after his birth. Mother stated that Father “was more than welcome to come down any time he wanted to” visit Child, but Father repeatedly told Mother, “I refuse to have anything to do with you to see my child.” Mother did not allow Father to remove Child from her supervision because (1) Child was nursing and (2) Mother felt Child needed “to get to know” Father before he took him for a visit. Father admitted Mother told him he could visit Child at her residence, but Father said it would have been “uncomfortable” because there were “still feelings.”[2]

¶3        Father did not provide financial support to Child or Mother during the first eighteen months of Child’s life. The Office of Recovery Services opened a case, and the matter came before the district court in early May 2015, where Father’s support obligation was determined.

¶4        In late May 2015, Mother allowed Father to visit Child. Mother’s daughter (Daughter) picked up Child and took him to meet Father at a nearby restaurant. Daughter allowed Father to take Child for a few minutes to buy a toy. But Father then sent Daughter a text message informing her that he was not returning Child. Father characterized this action as “rescuing” Child from the dangerous situation created by Mother’s drug use. Father took Child to his house. Mother stated that the day Father took Child was the “darkest day of [her] life” and admitted that she “wasn’t probably in the best place in [her] life.” For the first week after Father took Child, Father allowed Mother to call and read Child a bedtime story, but after that week Father refused to answer the phone, and Mother “was not allowed to see [Child] for six months.” Mother did not report Father’s taking of Child to the police or any other authority.

¶5        Mother realized that she was “never going to get [her] baby back” unless she “got clean.” She testified that she “found a new way of life” in a treatment center and “never touched [drugs] again.”

¶6        In October 2015, Father filed a parentage petition in which he sought sole custody of Child and child support from Mother. Around January 2016, Mother and Father “agreed” to an ongoing extrajudicial temporary custody arrangement under which Child stayed ten out of every twenty-eight days with Mother and the balance of the days with Father.[3] Mother said that she felt “bullied” into accepting the temporary arrangement. Father stated that Child did well under the arrangement.

¶7        Ultimately, a two-day bench trial was held in October and November 2016. The district court made the following findings of fact: (1) Mother and Father began a relationship when they were teenagers; (2) each had been married or in relationships with other persons; (3) each had other children from prior marriages or relationships; (4) each had a history of using illegal drugs and violating the law; (5) Father was married and Mother was single at the time of trial; (6) Child had his own bed and bedroom in Father’s house; (7) Child had his own bed in Mother’s room at Mother’s house; (8) Father and Mother resided approximately 105 miles apart and had no plans to move closer to each other; (9) Mother had a good support system where she lived and believed she could avoid adverse influences she might encounter elsewhere; (10) Mother and Father each had family members to provide support and a positive influence on Child; Father’s employment required him to be away from home for fourteen hours per day during scheduled work periods; Mother worked six-and-one-half hours daily, Monday through Thursday; (13) Child had been residing with both parents pursuant to an informal, temporary parent-time schedule; (14) Child was well-adjusted and doing well under the informal agreement. The district court also found:

Both parties acknowledged past deficiencies in their parenting abilities. In essence both parties have had periods in their [lives] when they have been less than fit parents. However, at the present time both parties contribute financially to the welfare of [Child]; and both parties spend appropriate time with, and provide appropriate emotional support to [Child]. Essentially, both parents are fit parents. Both are very bonded with [Child].

¶8        In its analysis, the district court acknowledged that both parties had a history of drug problems, criminal activities, and extramarital sexual relations. “While Father cleaned his life up sooner than Mother, there is insufficient evidence for [the district court] to make a decision as to whether one of the parties’ past conduct was better or worse than the other.” Indeed, Father admitted having a history of criminal activity, including “a couple DUIs,” methamphetamine and marijuana use with Mother, and being incarcerated more than three times. Mother likewise admitted that she had a history of drug use and selling drugs, but she had been “over a year clean” at the time of the trial. Thus, the district court determined that “evidence relating to past conduct and moral standards is equally balanced between the parties.“

¶9        In determining which parent should have primary physical care of Child, the district court highlighted four factors. First, in analyzing which party was most likely to allow “frequent and continuing contact with the other parent,” the district court noted that the facts did not weigh in Father’s favor, particularly because Father “surreptitiously” and “underhandedly” took Child and did not allow Mother to contact Child for a significant period. At the same time, the court acknowledged that taking Child motivated Mother’s recovery from drug use. The district court found the evidence supported the conclusion that Child was “doing very well” in the care of both parents and that both parties were cooperating in providing the other “meaningful parent time.”

¶10 Second, the district court determined that Child had a greater bond with Mother:

While [Child] has recently spent considerable periods of time with Father, [Child] has overall lived more with Mother than Father. Prior to the time Father became concerned enough with Mother’s drug use that he took self-help action, Father was content to allow [Child] to live primarily with Mother. The [district court] considers such action (or non-action) on the part of Father to be a tacit acknowledgement that the best interests of [Child] were being best served by [Child] living primarily with Mother.

Thus, the district court determined that Mother had been the primary caregiver for Child.

¶11      Third, “Mother’s work schedule is also more conducive to her having primary physical care of [Child].” The court reasoned that Mother could “devote more time to [Child’s] needs than Father” because she “works fewer hours, travels less time to and from work, and has a more consistent work schedule than Father.”

¶12      Fourth, the court cited the distance separating the parties as a motivating factor in its determination. “If the parties were living in the same community, or within a reasonably close distance from each other, the [district court] would likely have found a joint physical custody arrangement to be in [Child’s] best interests.” Indeed, both parties acknowledged at trial that once Child begins school, one parent must necessarily have primary custody. As Father noted, “Obviously when school starts, I think that’s why we’re here today. . . . I don’t think we could possibly do a two week on or a one week on schedule when he’s going to school.”

¶13 Having weighed these factors, the court determined that it was in Child’s best interests to award the parties joint legal custody, with Mother having primary physical custody. The district court further specified that “Father be allowed to exercise liberal and meaningful parent time with [Child]. At a minimum Father should be entitled to the aggregate amount of parent time provided by Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-35; with adjustments being made to that schedule to ensure Father’s parent time is exercised, as much as is reasonably possible, at times Father is off work.” Father appeals.

ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

¶14 The first issue is whether the district court’s factual findings were properly supported by the evidence. “A challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence concerns the [district] court’s findings of fact. Those findings will not be disturbed unless they are clearly erroneous.” Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, ¶ 14, 217 P.3d 733 (cleaned up). And a “court’s factual determinations are clearly erroneous only if they are in conflict with the clear weight of the evidence, or if this court has a definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been made.” Id. (cleaned up).

¶15      The second issue is whether the district court erred when it departed from the informal custody arrangement and awarded primary physical custody to Mother and only the statutory minimum parent-time to Father. “We review custody determinations under an abuse of discretion standard, giving the district court broad discretion to make custody awards.” K.P.S. v. E.J.P., 2018 UT App 5, ¶ 24, 414 P.3d 933 (cleaned up). We will not disturb the district court’s judgment “unless we determine the [district] court has exceeded the scope of permitted discretion or has acted contrary to law.” Davis v. Davis, 2001 UT App 225, ¶ 6, 29 P.3d 676 (cleaned up). Further, “[i]t has long been the law in this state that conclusions of law must be predicated upon and find support in the findings of fact and that the judgment or decree must follow the conclusions of law.” Gillmor v. Wright, 850 P.2d 431, 436 (Utah 1993).

ANALYSIS

  1. The Evidence Supported the District Court’s Factual Findings

¶16 Father’s first argument is that the evidence does not support the court’s factual findings. The factual findings of the district court “will not be disturbed unless they are clearly erroneous” by being “in conflict with the clear weight of the evidence.” Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, ¶ 14, 217 P.3d 733 (cleaned up). But “the existence of conflicting evidence is not sufficient to set aside a [district] court’s finding.” Bond v. Bond, 2018 UT App 38, ¶ 6, 420 P.3d 53 (cleaned up). Rather, “to successfully challenge a [district] court’s factual finding on appeal, the appellant must overcome the healthy dose of deference owed to factual findings by identifying and dealing with the supportive evidence and demonstrating the legal problem in that evidence, generally through marshaling the evidence.” Taft v. Taft, 2016 UT App 135, ¶ 19, 379 P.3d 890 (cleaned up). “The pill that is hard for many appellants to swallow is that if there is evidence supporting a finding, absent a legal problem—a ‘fatal flaw’—with that evidence, the finding will stand, even though there is ample record evidence that would have supported contrary findings.” Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, ¶ 20 n.5. Thus, “a party challenging a factual finding or sufficiency of the evidence to support a verdict will almost certainly fail to carry its burden of persuasion on appeal if it fails to marshal.” State v. Nielsen, 2014 UT 10, ¶ 42, 326 P.3d 645.

¶17 Here, Father has not addressed many of the district “court’s findings and makes no attempt to marshal the evidence in support of them. He clearly views the evidence as compelling a different outcome, but it is not within our purview to engage in a reweighing of the evidence, and [Father] has not demonstrated that the evidence underlying the [district] court’s findings is insufficient.” See Shuman v. Shuman, 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 9, 406 P.3d 258 (cleaned up). We illustrate a portion of the absence of marshaling as follows.

  1. Child’s Best Interests

¶18 Father disagrees that Mother is more likely than he is to act in Child’s best interests. The court found that Father “underhandedly” and “surreptitiously” took Child and “kept Child from Mother for some time.” Father responded that he allowed phone contact between Mother and Child, and noted that Mother never filed a police report against him after he took Child, implying that she tacitly supported Father’s decision to take Child. But Father fails to address why Mother would have been reluctant to call police. Mother had warrants out for her arrest. If she had filed a report, she likely would have lost custody of Child because she would have been arrested. By taking Child and withholding him from Mother, Father placed Mother in a no-win situation.

¶19 In contrast to Father’s actions, the record indicates that Mother was willing to let Father visit Child. Shortly after Child was born and before paternity had been established, Mother allowed Father to visit Child. Father admitted that Mother told him he could come visit Child at her parents’ house, but Father declined because there were “still feelings” and he was “uncomfortable” with such an arrangement. After paternity was established and Father agreed to pay child support, Mother allowed him to spend time with Child at a restaurant—a decision that led to her losing physical possession of Child. Furthermore, unlike Father, Mother never attempted to regain exclusive possession of Child through surreptitious means.

¶20      The district court also found that Father’s “non-action” in allowing Child to remain with Mother for the first eighteen months of his life was a “tacit acknowledgment” that Child’s best interests were served by remaining primarily with Mother. The court also noted that, although there was some dispute in the evidence at trial, Father told Mother shortly after taking Child that this arrangement was temporary and “she would get [Child] back after she cleaned up her drug use.”

¶21 From this evidence the court concluded that “the parties have recognized it is in the best interest of [Child] that [Mother] continue” to be his primary caregiver. As we noted in Shuman, Father “views the evidence as compelling a different outcome”— that his efforts to gain custody of Child demonstrate he was not content with allowing Child to live primarily with Mother—“but it is not within our purview to engage in a reweighing of the evidence.” 2017 UT App 192, ¶ 9 (cleaned up). Thus, the district court’s determination that Child’s best interests were served by awarding Mother primary custody was sufficiently supported by the evidence and was not clearly erroneous.[4]

  1. Primary Caretaker Assessment

¶22 Father next argues that the district court’s finding that Mother was the primary caretaker for the majority of Child’s life is “contrary to the law and evidence.” But Child lived exclusively with Mother for the first eighteen months of his life. In contrast, the parties shared custody from January 2016 until trial in late 2016. Father had sole custody for only about seven months— from May 2015 when he took child until January 2016 when the parties agreed to a temporary custody arrangement.

¶23 Father responds that “[i]t is not who the child has lived with the majority of his life, but who the child has lived with once a party initiates legal action.” Father cites Davis v. Davis, 749 P.2d 647 (Utah 1988), in support of this proposition. We find Father’s reading of Davis selective and inaccurate. In Davis, the parties in a divorce proceeding agreed that the father would have custody of a minor child so the child could stay in the family home. Id. at 648. About one month later, the divorce decree was set aside on the grounds that the mother was emotionally unstable at the time of the original proceeding and did not realize the consequences of her actions. Id. In the renewed divorce proceedings, the court awarded custody of the child to the father. Id. Our supreme court upheld the decision, noting that the father had been the child’s “primary caregiver for over a year and had provided a very stable environment.” Id. From this holding, Father argues that because he had primary custody of Child during the pendency of this matter, “[t]he District Court erred in disregarding this information in favor of the care provided by [Mother].”

¶24 As Mother points out in her brief, this “position is contrary to Utah law and basic logic.” Such an approach might require a court to award primary caretaker status to the parent who filed for custody after only recently gaining possession of a child over the interests of the parent who had a previous, but much longer, possession. Father’s position is also contrary to Davis. Directly following the statement that the current custody arrangement should be given special weight, the Davis court warned, “Of course, if the primary caregiver gained that status wrongfully, courts should be careful not to reward such conduct by giving the wrongdoer a consequential advantage in evaluating the custody question.” Id. at 648–49. We find Father’s reliance on Davis misplaced precisely because, as the district court noted, he gained primary caregiver status wrongfully when he “surreptitiously” and “underhandedly” took possession of Child through “self-help.” Therefore, the district court’s finding was not clearly erroneous.

  1. Work Schedule Analysis

¶25 Father also challenges the district court’s finding that Mother’s work schedule was more conducive to her having primary physical custody. Father argues that the district court’s decision “[e]ssentially . . . came down to its finding that [Mother’s] work schedule, a schedule where she worked more days, but fewer hours in a two-week period than [Father] served [Child’s] best interest.” Father’s characterization of the district court’s analysis of the parties’ work schedules is flawed in three respects.

¶26 First, Father fails to acknowledge that the work schedule was one of three factors the district court highlighted in Mother’s favor. The court also determined that Mother was more likely to allow “frequent and continuing contact with the other parent” and that Mother had a greater bond with Child.

¶27      Second, Father asserts that in Fullmer v. Fullmer, 761 P.2d 942 (Utah Ct. App. 1988), this court held that it is an abuse of discretion to base a custody award on the parties’ work schedules. But Father misreads that case. Fullmer stated that the “[district] court abused its discretion by relying on [a minor child’s] placement in full-time day care to change [the child’s] custody placement” because “more and more children are raised by single parents who must work.” Id. at 948. In the present case, the district court did not punish Father for working. Rather, it stated that Mother’s work schedule was more conducive to devoting more time to Child.

¶28      Third, Father ignores the totality of the evidence. Father’s job as a supervisor at a coal mine required that he work variable twelve-hour shifts fourteen days out of every four weeks. In addition, Father has a nearly one-hour commute each way to work. He admits that the length of his commute requires him to rely on his extended family and his spouse to address emergencies involving Child that might arise while he is working. In contrast, Mother works Monday through Thursday from 10:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at a convenience store close to home. Her employment affords her the flexibility to leave during her shift if the need arises. Therefore, Father has not shown that the district court’s finding that Mother can devote more time to Child’s needs than Father was clearly erroneous.

¶29      By failing to marshal the evidence in favor of the district court’s findings, Father has not met his burden of persuasion. Accordingly, we do not conclude that the findings are clearly erroneous and instead conclude that, although we might subjectively view the import of the evidence differently from the district court, we cannot say that the conclusions are against the great weight of evidence nor are we convinced that a mistake has been made.

  1. The District Court Erred in Awarding Father Minimum
    Parent-Time
  2. Deviation from the Informal Custody Arrangement

¶30 Father next argues that the district court erred by failing to identify a compelling reason to deviate from the informal custody arrangement—under which Child was thriving, happy, and well-adjusted—and awarding primary physical custody to Mother and parent-time to Father.[5] “The importance of the myriad of factors used in determining a child’s best interests ranges from the possibly relevant to the critically important. At the critically important end of the spectrum, when the child is thriving, happy, and well-adjusted, lies continuity of placement.” Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, ¶ 26, 989 P.2d 491. “A very short custody arrangement of a few months, even if nurturing to some extent, is not entitled to as much weight as a similar arrangement of substantial duration. Of course, a lengthy custody arrangement in which a child has thrived ought rarely, if at all, to be disturbed, and then only if the circumstances are compelling.” Elmer v. Elmer, 776 P.2d 599, 604 (Utah 1989) (cleaned up). In Davis v. Davis, 749 P.2d 647, (Utah 1988), a custody arrangement that had been in place for just over a year was held sufficient to establish continuity. Id. at 648.

¶31 In the present case, we note that the informal custody arrangement was temporary and had been in place for about ten months—from January 2016 until the district court’s decision in November 2016—falling between the lengths of duration established in our case law. But the length of the informal custody arrangement is not the dispositive factor here. Rather, the district court recognized that the agreement could not continue because Child would be starting school the following year. And Father admits that “when [Child] turns five and begins kindergarten, the Court really does have to pick one parent for [Child] to reside with, at least Monday through Friday.” Mother also acknowledges that where Child attends school is an issue that must be addressed. Thus, the district court acted within its discretion and supported its decision with adequate findings when it departed from the informal custody arrangement. An imminent change in circumstance, namely Child’s starting school, required a change in the custody arrangement. Father fails to address this significant undisputed fact.

¶32 The district court acknowledged that joint physical custody would be in Child’s best interests if the parties lived in the same community, but the parties’ distance from each other precluded such an arrangement. Prompted by this reality, the district court weighed the factors, see supra ¶¶ 9–11, and concluded that Child’s best interests were served by awarding Mother primary physical custody. It noted that (1) Mother had been the primary caregiver for the majority of Child’s life, (2) Mother was more likely to allow “frequent and continuing contact with the other parent,” and (3) Mother’s work schedule was more conducive to having primary physical care of Child. As this court noted in Kimball v. Kimball, 2009 UT App 233, 217 P.3d 733, “if there is evidence supporting a finding, absent a legal problem—a ‘fatal flaw’—with that evidence, the finding will stand, even though there is ample record evidence that would have supported contrary findings.” Id. ¶ 20 n.5.

¶33 Thus, we conclude that the district court did not exceed its discretion in relying on evidence of changed circumstances in departing from the informal custody arrangement and awarding Mother primary physical custody of Child.

  1. The Award of Parent-Time to Father

¶34 Father argues that the district court erred in awarding him minimum parent-time, asserting that he showed by a preponderance of the evidence that he should be awarded parent-time in excess of the minimum guidelines in Utah Code sections 30-3-35 and 30-3-35.5. We agree that the district court’s award of only minimum parent-time was not supported by its findings.

¶35 “[T]he parent-time schedule as provided in Sections 30-3-35 and 30-3-35.5 shall be presumed to be in the best interests of the child . . . .” Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-34(2) (LexisNexis Supp. 2018).[6] But these parent-time schedules are subject to adjustment. See id. The schedules represent the minimum parent-time to which the noncustodial parent is entitled unless one of the parents can establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that more or less time should be awarded based upon a number of criteria. See id. Criteria relevant to the case at hand include, amongst a lengthy list, (1) the distance between the residences of the custodial and noncustodial parents, (2) shared interests between the child and the noncustodial parent, (3) involvement of the noncustodial parent in the child’s community activities, and (4) “any other criteria the court determines relevant to the best interests of the child.” Id. § 30-3-34(2)(b), (h), (i), (o). Regardless of whether the court awards minimum parent-time or awards more or less than the statutory minimum, the statute requires the court to “enter the reasons underlying its order.” Id. § 30-3-34(3).

¶36 Without specifically referencing the statutory criteria, Father contends that the following evidence supported awarding him parent-time in excess of the statutory minimum: (1) Mother’s testimony that Child should have equal time with both parents; (2) neither distance nor finances made “frequent and meaningful” visitation prohibitive; (3) travel between the parents’ residences was not harmful to Child; (4) Child shared a strong bond with Father and Father’s wife and other children; and (5) Child thrived by following the routine in Father’s household.

¶37      “It has long been the law in this state that conclusions of law must be predicated upon and find support in the findings of fact and that the judgment or decree must follow the conclusions of law. When there is variance, the judgment must be corrected to conform with the findings of fact.” Gillmor v. Wright, 850 P.2d 431, 436 (Utah 1993). Such correction is appropriate in this case.

¶38 In the very sentence stating that it found Child’s best interests were served by awarding primary physical custody to Mother, the district court also stated that it “would likely have found a joint physical custody arrangement to be in [Child’s] best interests” if the parties lived reasonably close to each other. The district court reasonably concluded that the distance separating the parties’ residences justified something less than equal parent-time, especially once Child starts attending school. After all, Mother and Father agree that a 100-mile commute to school is unworkable. But this distance does not prevent other possible accommodations that could be accomplished without undue disruption to Child’s school schedule, such as awarding Father additional weekend time or more parent-time over the summer vacation, fall break, spring break, and holidays.

¶39      The district court made no attempt to explain, as required by the statute, its reason for awarding minimum parent-time. See Utah Code Ann. § 30-3-34(3). Given the district court’s findings that (1) Child was “well adjusted and doing very well pursuant” to the informal custody arrangement, (2) “[b]oth parents deeply love and are committed to [Child],” (3) “both parents are extremely motivated to be awarded physical custody of [Child],”

both parties offer financial and emotional support to Child,

“both parties spend appropriate time with” Child, (6) both parents are “fit” and “very bonded” with Child, and (7) the parties agree that Child needs a “relationship” and “substantial time with” the other parent, we would have expected that the court attempt to increase Father’s parent-time over the statutory minimum. Indeed, we are hard-pressed to understand the process by which the court awarded Father minimum parent-time when—in its own words—Father should be “allowed to exercise liberal and meaningful parent time” and where Mother argued at trial that both parents should have equal time with Child. In reality, the record reflects that Mother was arguing that she should have enhanced parent-time, likely believing that Father would prevail as the primary caretaker. Both through the presentation of evidence and in argument, Mother supported the notion that in this case enhanced parent-time should be awarded to the non-primary caregiver. Accordingly, awarding Father the statutory minimum parent-time while simultaneously concluding that the evidence supports awarding Father “liberal and meaningful” parent-time presents a conclusion that does not follow from the findings stated.

¶40      On this single issue we determine that the district court’s conclusion is not supported by its findings, and therefore the court exceeded its discretion when it minimized Father’s parent-time. Thus, we reverse on this issue because of inadequate findings and remand for additional findings and, if necessary, a reevaluation of what additional parent-time should be awarded.

CONCLUSION

¶41 We conclude that the evidence supports the district court’s findings leading it to determine that Child’s best interests were served by awarding primary physical custody to Mother. We further conclude that the district court made adequate findings supported by the record to depart from the informal custody arrangement, but we conclude that the court’s findings are inadequate to justify an award of only minimum parent-time to Father. Accordingly, we remand this matter for further proceedings.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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[1] “On appeal from a bench trial, we view the evidence in a light most favorable to the [district] court’s findings, and therefore recite the facts consistent with that standard.” Lake Philgas Service v. Valley Bank & Trust Co., 845 P.2d 951, 953 n.1 (Utah Ct. App. 1993).

[2] Shortly after Child was born, Father reunited with his ex-wife. They had married for the first time in 2006, separated, divorced, and then remarried in June 2016.

[3] The temporary arrangement began about ten months prior to the November 2016 trial. A temporary order allowing Mother parent-time was in place from late December 2015 through early January 2016.

[4] The court concluded that Mother would be more likely than Father to allow contact because Father resorted to self-help to take possession of Child and then kept Child from Mother for some time. Father did not deny taking and keeping Child. But he asserted Mother stopped calling Child and never filed a police report. Father further argued that the district court ignored (1) Mother withholding Child from Father prior to the self-help incident and (2) Father’s willingness to allow additional contact under the informal custody arrangement. Although Father presented evidence that would have supported a contrary finding, we will not disturb the district court’s finding that Mother was more likely to allow frequent and continuing contact for the simple reason that this finding was also supported by the evidence.

[5] Father contends that Hudema v. Carpenter, 1999 UT App 290, 989 P.2d 491, stands for the proposition that the court must have a compelling reason to disrupt a stable custody situation. We disagree and find Father’s reliance on Hudema misplaced. In that decision, a panel of this court noted, “[N]ot all continuity [of custody arrangements] is alike. A heavy emphasis on preserving stability presupposes that the prior arrangement is not only satisfactory, but will in fact continue.” Id. ¶ 27. In Hudema, the mother had sole physical custody pursuant to a court order. Id. ¶ 3. While the district court was considering a petition to modify custody, the mother moved to another state. Id. ¶¶ 3–4. The district court determined that the custody arrangement could not continue due to changed circumstances. Id. ¶ 6. Accordingly, this court in Pingree v. Pingree, 2015 UT App 302, 365 P.3d 713, clarified that Hudema does not stand “for the proposition that a court must find compelling circumstances before ordering a change in custody when the child thrives under the current arrangement” but for the proposition that “[a] modification is premised on a finding of changed circumstances.” Id. ¶ 13. The present case is not presented in that context.

[6] We cite to the current version of this section because the recent amendments do not affect our analysis or the issue as presented by the parties.

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Why is dividing money in a divorce so difficult? Shouldn’t it be as simple as take what each earned?

Why is dividing money in a divorce so difficult? Shouldn’t it be as simple as each takes what each earned?

In Utah (where I practice law), the law is not “take what we each earned.” In Utah, the law is:

“Marital property is ordinarily all property acquired during marriage and it encompasses all of the assets of every nature possessed by the parties, whenever obtained and from whatever source derived. (Dunn v. Dunn, 802 P.2d 1314, 1317–18 (Utah Ct.App.1990)”

See also Keyes v. Keyes, 351 P.3d 90, 99 (Utah Ct.App. 2015):

¶ 28 In addressing the distribution of property between divorcing spouses, the trial court must first determine whether the assets in dispute are marital or separate property. Dahl v. Dahl, 2015 UT 23, ¶ 121, 345 P.3d 566. “Marital property is ordinarily all property acquired during the marriage … whenever obtained and from whatever source derived.” Dunn v. Dunn, 802 P.2d 1314, 1317–18 (Utah Ct.App.1990) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

“In Utah, marital property is ordinarily divided equally between the divorcing spouses….” Stonehocker v. Stonehocker, 2008 UT App 11, ¶ 13, 176 P.3d 476. After identifying property as marital, the court must “consider whether there are exceptional circumstances that overcome the general presumption that marital property be divided equally,” “assign values to each item of marital property so that [a] distribution strategy … can be implemented,” and “distribute the marital assets consistent with the distribution strategy.” Dahl, 2015 UT 23, ¶ 121, 345 P.3d 566 (alteration and omission in original) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

On the other hand, “separate property, which may include premarital assets, inheritances, or similar assets, will be awarded to the acquiring spouse.” Stonehocker, 2008 UT App 11, ¶ 13, 176 P.3d 476 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). In most cases, “equity requires that each party retain the separate property that he or she brought into the marriage, including any appreciation of the separate property.” Dunn, 802 P.2d at 1320. Separate property may lose its separate *99 character, however, “through commingling” or if “the other spouse has by his or her efforts or expense contributed to the enhancement, maintenance, or protection of that property.” Mortensen v. Mortensen, 760 P.2d 304, 308 (Utah 1988). In making this assessment, the court “look[s] to a party’s actions as a manifestation of a spouse’s intent to contribute separate property to the marital estate.” Dahl, 2015 UT 23, ¶ 143, 345 P.3d 566.

After you marry, your income from employment is marital property, not your separate property. That means that during the marriage your spouse has a right not just to half of your income, but all of it (your spouse has no spousal claim to all—or even half—of your income when he/she ceases to be your spouse). This also means that in the case of a divorce your spouse will get half of any retirement funds you save or benefits you accrue during the marriage. And even after divorce your spouse can get a portion of your income in the form of alimony, if your spouse came to be dependent upon you financially to maintain the standard of living to which he/she became accustomed during the marriage.

https://www.quora.com/Why-is-dividing-money-in-a-divorce-so-difficult-shouldn-t-it-be-as-simple-as-take-what-earned/answer/Eric-Johnson-311

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Can a Parent Pay No Child Support and Still Have Visitation and Parent-time Rights?

QUESTION:

Dear Eric,

My ex and I have been separated for a while now. He has not given us any money for child support. I am supporting my child and me on my own, and now my husband says he wants to get a divorce.

He also says wants to give me sole custody of our child, doesn’t want to pay child support of any kind, but still have visitation and parent-time rights.

Can he get out of paying child support under Utah law and still see our child? Or does he have to sign his parental rights away to avoid child support and therefore then will not be allowed to see our child, unless I allow him to?

ANSWER:

To answer your questions:

Can he get out of paying child support under Utah law?

Not if he’s employed or unemployed, but employable.

Does he have to sign his parental rights away to avoid child support?

Yes. This is known as termination of parental rights. This can be accomplished by a voluntary relinquishment of parental rights, if your husband is willing to do this voluntarily. But even if he won’t voluntarily relinquish his parental rights, you can still petition the court to terminate his parental rights against his will.

Therefore, he isn’t allowed to see our child, unless I allow him to?

NO! The law in Utah is clear on this: you cannot withhold contact between the child and a parent, even if that parent is refusing to pay child support:

“Neither parent-time nor child support is to be withheld due to either parent’s failure to comply with a court-ordered parent-time schedule.”

The reason behind this policy is that children need and deserve both financial and emotional support from parents. If a father deprives a child of his financial support that doesn’t justify the mother withholding from the child the father’s emotional support and love too. And that makes sense, even though it’s not much help to the mother in this scenario.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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