Appeals court upholds Johnny Wall’s murder conviction in death of Uta von Schwedler

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Brickman Wall , center, listens to blood pattern expert Rod Englert testify for the prosecution with his defense team Jeremy Delicino, left, and Fred Metos in 3rd District Court Wednesday Feb. 19 in Salt Lake City. Wall was convicted of killing his former wife researcher Uta von Schwedler in her Sugar House home in September 2011.

When Johnny Wall was convicted in the high-profile slaying of his ex-wife four years ago, he maintained his innocence and his attorneys vowed to appeal.

On Thursday, the Utah Court of Appeals sided with prosecutors, saying that despite Wall’s claims that evidence wasn’t sufficient to convict him of first-degree murder, that the court admitted DNA evidence it shouldn’t have and that his attorneys were ineffective, all the facts point to him killing Uta von Schwedler.

Wall’s attorney, Troy Booher, said Wall still contends he is innocent.

“We are evaluating the next steps, which could include asking the Utah Supreme Court to review this decision,” Booher said.

The 40-page appellate court decision outlines prosecutors’ case against Wall, from his contentious divorce from von Schwedler to his conflicting stories of where he was when she died and other “suspicious” circumstances and evidence surrounding her September 2011 death.

Von Schwedler’s boyfriend found her body at her Sugar House home around 7:45 p.m. on Sept. 27. He noticed something wasn’t right almost as soon as he arrived at her home: her garbage cans were still out by the street, her newspaper was still on the driveway and her front door was unlocked, Judge Diana Hagen wrote.

When he went inside, he discovered the 49-year-old dead in the bathtub. The medical examiner determined she drowned and had a near-lethal dose of Xanax in her body.

While Wall contended von Schwedler died by suicide, first responders thought otherwise, Hagen wrote. She added that friends and family also said von Schwedler seemed happy. She, a researcher, had just had a breakthrough in cancer research at work and was looking forward to continuing it.

At the home, police noted a toppled lamp, vase and books, and pools of blood that indicated a “signs of real struggle.” A forensic examiner later noted wounds on her body that were “not like anything [he] had ever seen in a suicide” and appeared defensive.

He also said he found no traces of Xanax pills in her stomach and wasn’t looking for an injection site — but said her injuries could have obscured an injection site if that’s how they got into her body, and later said “but for the Xanax” he would have called von Schwedler’s death a homicide. He ultimately settled on saying it was “undetermined.”

Throughout the investigation, police wondered where the Xanax in von Schwedler’s system came from. She’d never been prescribed it, never talked about taking it and they couldn’t find any in her home.

Hagen notes that Wall, however, had prescribed it to himself twice after he and von Schwedler’s divorce, and prescribed the highest dosage possible for himself four months before von Schwedler died. He said he got it for his mother, but his parents never confirmed that they received it.

Yet, after von Schwedler’s death, a friend offered Wall a Xanax because he seemed “distraught." Wall claimed he didn’t know what the drug was, Hagen said.

When police spoke with Wall about von Schwedler’s death, his story changed twice.

The first time, he told detectives what his family would generally do on Monday evenings — not what he did. He wouldn’t say if he was at his home the entire night, or if he went to von Schwedler’s. When asked directly if he killed her, Wall 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," Hagen wrote.

He added that the morning von Schwedler was found dead, he’d purchased eggs between 6:45 and 7 a.m. and cooked breakfast for his children. Then went to the carwash.

The second time he spoke with police, he said he did leave his house early the day von Schwedler died to go to the hospital where he worked to do paperwork, but forgot his badge to get inside. Instead of going home to get it, he said he went hiking in a nearby canyon and then to wash his car.

He didn’t mention the eggs, Hagen said.

In his appeal, Wall argued that “suicide and homicide are at least equally probable," and because of that the jury’s guilty verdict was based speculation, not reasonable inference.

The appellate court disagreed, saying there was, in fact, enough evidence. It added Wall had motive (he “despised” von Schwedler and they were in an “acrimonious” custody dispute) and the opportunity to kill von Schwedler (he couldn’t account for his whereabouts during the time von Schwedler died).

The court also disagreed with Wall’s arguments about erroneously admitted DNA evidence found beneath von Schwedler’s pillowcase and ineffective counsel.