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Forensic Expert Witness Claims Death was Suicide in Utah Murder Trial

The case against a Utah doctor accused of murdering his wife hit a snag this week when a forensic expert witness testified that the wounds the victim suffered were likely self-inflicted, suggesting the death was a suicide.  The expert testimony is the latest dramatic turn in the murder trial of Johnny Brickman Wall, and gives defense attorneys a compelling argument for sufficient reasonable doubt to warrant an acquittal.

Utah Doctor Accused of Murdering His Wife

In 2011, Uta von Schwedler, the 49-year-old ex-wife of Johnny Wall, was found dead in a bathtub full of water in her Utah home.  The subsequent murder investigation turned to Wall due to the couple’s messy divorce and bitter battle for custody of the four children. After examining all the available evidence, prosecutors charged the 51-year-old Wall with first-degree felony murder in von Schwedler’s death, and have built a case arguing that he attacked his ex-wife in her home and left her body in the bathtub.

Police and prosecutors point to defensive wounds on von Schwedler’s arms and an injection mark that was covered by a stab wound – where Wall allegedly injected her with Xanax – as evidence that the woman was murdered by her ex-husband, however, the cause of death has not been definitively settled. Throughout the investigation and trial, Wall and his defense team have argued that von Schwedler’s death was a suicide, and called upon forensic expert Dr. Judy Melinek to cast doubt on the conclusion that von Schwedler was murdered.

Forensic Expert Suggests Victim Committed Suicide

Giving genesis to the defense’s argument that von Schwedler’s death was a suicide rather than a homicide was the uncertainty by the Utah assistant medical examiner who listed her death as “undetermined” due to difficulty ascertaining the cause.  Although the medical examiner did not take a position, the defense called forensic expert witness Dr. Judy Melinek took the stand to present an argument that von Schwedler injured herself and took Xanex before drowning in her bath tub.

According to Dr. Melinek, the cuts on von Schwedler’s arms that prosecutors claimed were defense wounds were likely self-administered.  Dr. Melinek observed that the wounds were parallel, which usually indicates a suicide attempt rather than defensive wounds, which are usually at an angle or horizontal on the arm.  Further, Melinek informed jurors that the cuts showed sign of hesitation, which a suicidal person does when “they are testing to see what they can tolerate.”

Dr. Melinek also pointed out that there were no signs of a struggle at the scene, which, in her expert opinion, indicates von Schwedler was not attacked.  When asked on cross-examination if the scene was staged, Dr. Melinek responded that it did not appear to be, citing a lack of Xanax pills at the scene to further the appearance of a suicide.  Overall, Dr. Melinek’s expert opinion was that von Schwedler took Xanax, slit her own wrists, got into the bathtub and drowned – leaving the defendant Wall out of the equation.

Defense Seeks Reasonable Doubt with Expert Testimony

In offering Dr. Melinek as a forensic expert witness, Wall’s defense team has presented a compelling argument to reasonably doubt the prosecution’s claims that the defendant killed his wife.  The legal standard for conviction in criminal trials allows jurors to convict only if the defendant is guilty beyond all reasonable doubt, and Dr. Melinek’s expert testimony provides a strong basis for doubt.  Even if jurors think it is more likely that the prosecution is right, the existence of a second theory of von Schwedler’s death that is supported by an experienced forensic expert witness could weaken the jury’s belief in guilt sufficiently to acquit Wall.  Dr. Melinek might be wrong, and might even have failed to convince jurors that the death was a suicide, but her expert testimony that von Schwedler’s death was not a homicide casts an impossible-to-ignore shadow over the prosecution’s case.