The Utah Supreme Court has reversed the conviction of Komasquin Lopez after finding that a suicidologist’s theory failed to meet an adequate threshold to prove its reliability.
In December 2013, Shannon Lopez picked her husband, Komasquin Lopez up from work. Both had consumed methamphetamine. Komasquin testified that the two argued over Shannon’s methamphetamine use and the couple’s financial problems as they drove home. During the drive, Sharon suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the head.
Komasquin was the only other occupant of the vehicle. He maintained that he was innocent and claimed that his wife took her own life. A handgun and shell casing were found near the driver’s seat. Investigators determined that the fatal wound came from a gun that was pressed against the left side of Shannon’s head. Shannon was right-handed.
Komasquin was charged with his wife’s murder. At trial, the State presented testimony from Dr. Craig Bryan, a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of suicide patients. Dr. Bryan used the Fluid Vulnerability Theory of Suicide (FVTS) to assess the likelihood that Shannon took her own life. FVTS assesses two different types of risk: baseline, which is affected by predispositions, and acute, which involves the emotional, physiological, behavioral and cognitive risk of the active episode. FVTS is the “most commonly used theory and approach to developing treatment and understanding suicide risks.” Dr. Bryan typically used interviews and tests to identify FVTS risk levels. Dr. Bryan applied FVTS to opine that Shannon Lopez’s behavior prior to her death was inconsistent with suicide.
Komasquin was convicted and sentenced to 16 years to life in prison.
Komasquin appealed his conviction, arguing that the State did not lay a sufficient foundation to demonstrate that its expert’s theory could produce a reliable assessment of Shannon’s suicide risk. The defense also argued that the district court erred by admitting evidence that he had pointed a gun at Shannon in the past and threatened to kill her.
The Utah Supreme Court agreed. It found that the State had not adequately laid the foundation as to whether FVTS was generally accepted as a means for assessing suicide risk in someone who had already passed away. It noted that the record showed that Dr. Bryan had never addressed whether FVTS had ever been used to address suicide risk in someone who was deceased. Accordingly, the Court found that the district court erred by admitting Dr. Bryan’s testimony under Utah Rule of Evidence 702. Justice John Pearce, writing for the court, noted that the conflicting evidence in case made it likely that Dr. Bryan’s opinion likely swayed the jury.
The Court also found that the district court had abused its discretion by admitting Komasquin’s prior acts of pointing a gun at and threatening Shannon because the past events were not sufficiently similar or frequent to be admitted.
Komasquin Lopez’s conviction was reversed and his case was remanded to 3rd District Court, where he may face a new trial.