Topics: Appellate Review

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STATE v. JAEGER, 973 P.2d 404 (Utah 1999)

Jaeger appeals from his second-degree murder conviction. He contends the trial court erroneously excluded evidence of the victim's prior suicide attempt....

- Jaeger called 911 from his home and reported that his nineteen-year-old live-in girlfriend, Mary Barndt, had shot herself. When police and paramedics arrived, they found Mary partially clothed and lying in the kitchen. A .22 caliber pistol was lying “pretty close” to her right foot, and an empty shell casing was found between her ankles. The police also found a bra next to her body.

Mary was unconscious and had a weak pulse when the paramedics began to treat her injuries. The bullet entered her neck just above her clavicle and had struck the subclavian artery, causing severe internal bleeding. In an attempt to preserve evidence, one of the police officers taped brown paper bags on Mary's hands. She died shortly after arriving at the hospital.

Jaeger told one of the officers that when he arrived home from work at about 7:30 p.m., the house appeared empty. However, at 8:30 p.m., he discovered Mary's thirteen-month-old daughter alone in a back bedroom. He admitted that he was angry and upset that Mary had left the child unattended. He called Mary's mother, in an attempt to locate Mary, but she did not know Mary's whereabouts.

Jaeger also told police that when Mary finally returned home at around 12:10 a.m., he told her that he was tired of her lying and wanted her out of the house by the next day. He said that he then called her mother again and that after a struggle, Mary reluctantly took the phone. He asserted that after Mary began talking to her mother, he threw a blanket and pillow into the hall for her and he then went to bed. He stated that he later awoke to a “bang” and that he found Mary lying unconscious on the kitchen floor. He maintained that she shot herself.

However, other evidence contradicted Jaeger's story. The police swabbed both Jaeger's and Mary's hands for gunshot residue (“GSR”). State crime lab experts concluded that the swabs taken from Jaeger's hands contained elements of GSR while the swabs taken from Mary's hands did not. Thus the GSR evidence suggested that Jaeger, not Mary, had fired a gun.

Dr. Edward A. Leis, the Deputy Chief Medical Examiner, performed an autopsy on Mary's body. Dr. Leis opined that Mary's death was a homicide, not a suicide.

The central issue at Jaeger's trial was whether Mary's death was a suicide or a homicide. During trial, Jaeger sought to admit certain medical records from Valley Mental Health's Adolescent Residential Treatment & Education Center (“ARTEC”). Mary was a resident of ARTEC from 1986 to 1987 because she was “ungovernable,” ran away from home, and abused alcohol and drugs. The ARTEC records contained statements Mary allegedly made admitting that she had attempted suicide in the past but denying any suicidal ideation while a resident of the program. The State objected to the admission of the records; the court sustained the objection, ruling that they were irrelevant.

Jaeger was ultimately convicted as charged and was sentenced to serve a term of five years to life in prison. Thereafter, he moved for a new trial on the basis that the trial court erroneously excluded evidence of Mary's past suicide attempt. The court denied the motion. Jaeger now appeals.

The first issue presented is whether the trial court erred in excluding the ARTEC records which contained Mary's statements that she had attempted suicide on a previous occasion. The court excluded these records on the basis that they were irrelevant. Jaeger, however, contends that such records were relevant because the main issue at trial was whether Mary's death was a homicide or a suicide. He further argues that this evidence was admissible under other rules of evidence not considered by the court. We agree that the court erred by excluding this evidence but ultimately conclude that such error was harmless.

A. The Relevance of the ARTEC Records
Rule 401 of the Utah Rules of Evidence defines relevant evidence as “evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.” Utah R. Evid. 401 (emphasis added). In other words, “[e]vidence that has even the slightest probative value” is relevant under the definition in rule 401....

Irrelevant evidence is inadmissible under rule 402 of the Utah Rules of Evidence. That rule provides: “All relevant evidence is admissible, except as otherwise provided by the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of the state of Utah, statute, or by these rules.... Evidence which is not relevant is not admissible.” Utah R. Evid. 402 (emphasis added). Thus, where the proffered evidence has no probative value to a fact at issue, it is irrelevant and is inadmissible under rule 402. However, because the standard for determining whether evidence is relevant is so low, the issue of whether evidence is relevant is rarely an issue.

The trial court held that ninety-nine percent of the ARTEC records were irrelevant and that they were “very speculative, both as to content and as to the time element.” The trial court apparently concluded that these records failed to meet rule 401's definition of relevant evidence and excluded them under rule 402. This decision was erroneous.

Jaeger sought to introduce the ARTEC records as evidence supporting his defense that Mary committed suicide. The court apparently excluded this evidence on the basis that proof that a person attempted suicide when she was a young, “ungovernable” teenager is not probative of whether this same person committed suicide when she was nineteen years old.

We noted earlier that the standard for determining whether evidence is relevant is very low. It is reasonable to believe that a person who has attempted suicide in the past may attempt suicide again. The flaw in the trial court's reasoning was its failure to recognize that while the remoteness of the evidence may reduce its probative value, rule 401 states that relevant evidence is evidence that has “any tendency to make the existence of any fact ... more probable or less probable,” and the ARTEC records in this case met that standard.

In sum, we conclude that the trial court erred in holding that the ARTEC records were irrelevant. These records might have aided the jury in determining whether Mary's death was a homicide or a suicide. Thus, this evidence was relevant under rule 401 and was not excludable under rule 402....

We affirm Jaeger's conviction and sentence. Although the court erred in excluding the ARTEC records as irrelevant, we conclude that such error was harmless....

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