The doctor barely lifted his head Thursday as a judge ordered him to stand trial in the 2011 murder of his ex-wife.
John Brickman Wall sat staring at the floor, his face drawn, expression clouded and worn.
His attorneys said he felt "discouraged," that he had hoped the case would be tossed for what defense attorneys have called speculative and circumstantial evidence that isn’t enough to prove Wall had anything to do with his ex-wife’s demise at her Salt Lake City home.
"Dr. Wall has maintained his innocence from the very beginning, " defense attorney Fred Metos said after Thursday’s hearing. "[Prosecutors] haven’t offered a plea deal, and I don’t think it’s likely that they will. I highly doubt this case can be resolved any sort of plea."
But 3rd District Judge Robin Reese ruled Thursday there was enough evidence to show that the death of Uta von Schwedler was, indeed, a murder and that Wall was likely the person who committed it.
"There are signs of a struggle inside the deceased’s bedroom," the judge said as he issued his ruling. "The defendant was angry at [von Schwedler] over a long period of time."
The threshold of proof is lower in preliminary hearings, as the judge’s ruling is based on a whether prosecutors have shown "probable cause," which is much less than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard required for a jury verdict.
But prosecutors said after the hearing they’re confident in the case they’ve built against the Utah pediatrician.
"We’re very pleased with the bind-over ruling," said prosecutor Matt Janzen. "All cases are difficult, but I believe we can prove what we need to prove here."
Wall, 49, is charged with first-degree felony counts of aggravated burglary and murder — crimes for which he could be sentenced to up to life in prison.
Throughout the course of the two-day preliminary hearing, the judge heard testimony from those who knew the Salt Lake City couple before and after their contentious divorce, medical and forensic experts, investigators and the man who found von Schwedler’s body in her bathtub.
Of all the evidence, the most hotly debated was that of the medical examiner.
Despite wounds to von Schwedler’s body that appeared more like defensive-wounds — the kind of injury obtained in a physical struggle — than wounds one would inflict on their own body, medical examiner Erik Christensen could not rule von Schwedler’s death a homicide.
Because it wasn’t clearly a suicide, either, he declared her manner of death "undetermined."
"This is a woman with no known suicidality, whose friends and family describe as upbeat, making future plans," Christensen said. "But usually, suicide is an impulsive, private act. I’m not comfortable saying it couldn’t be that."
Prosecutors declined to comment about how they would overcome this uncertainty should the case be brought before a jury. But in closing arguments Thursday, Janzen said the medical examiner’s report was simply a "medical determination, not a legal one."
He pointed to the big picture supporting their claim that Wall killed von Schwedler:
"There was a building level of frustration [with von Schwedler]. ... He doesn’t confess in his police interview because there’s a part of him that just doesn’t want to say that he did it," Janzen said. "There is a covering up and a cleaning up of the crime scene. A person who’s committing suicide doesn’t clean up and cover up the evidence. That happens in a homicide."
A brutal custody battle gave Wall the motive to do it, Janzen said. He was seen by several witnesses at odd times doing odd things around the time von Schwedler likely died — like moving a garbage can by his home at 1 a.m., after he told officers he had slept the entire night outside.
"He had the opportunity. He was out late at night," Janzen said. "His reaction to [the police] confronting him about witnesses seeing him and having DNA evidence was he started to sweat. And now we have that evidence."
Von Schwedler, 49, was found dead in the bathtub of her home on Sept. 27, 2011. She was an AIDS researcher at the University of Utah and a mother of four.Next Page >
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