State v. Clark

CourtCourt of Appeals of Utah
Citation756 Utah Adv. Rep. 7,322 P.3d 761
Decision Date25 August 2014
Docket NumberNo. 20110206–CA.,20110206–CA.
PartiesSTATE of Utah, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. Jason Kyle CLARK, Defendant and Appellant.


Lori J. Seppi, for Appellant.

Sean D. Reyes and Christopher D. Ballard, for Appellee.

Judge MICHELE M. CHRISTIANSEN authored this Opinion, in which Judges CAROLYN B. McHUGH and STEPHEN L. ROTH concurred.



¶ 1 Defendant Jason Kyle Clark appeals his first degree felony convictions for various counts of aggravated murder, attempted aggravated murder, aggravated burglary, aggravated kidnapping, and aggravated robbery, and his class B misdemeanor conviction for aggravated cruelty to animals. We affirm on all counts.


¶ 2 “On appeal from a jury verdict, we view the evidence and all reasonable inferences in a light most favorable to that verdict and recite the facts accordingly.” State v. Pinder, 2005 UT 15, ¶ 2, 114 P.3d 551 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

¶ 3 On April 29, 2007, Daniel Blankenship arrived at the Salt Lake City home of A.S. to settle a drug-related dispute. Blankenship was accompanied by two men, Defendant and an unidentified third man. Blankenship entered the home first and talked with A.S. alone while the other men waited outside. Defendant and the third man entered the home with guns drawn shortly thereafter.

¶ 4 Defendant proceeded to question A.S. about a confrontation that had occurred a few days earlier between the stepson of Defendant's girlfriend and two of A.S.'s associates, D.L. and K.K. During the questioning, Defendant yelled at A.S. and struck her on the top of her head with the butt of his gun, and the third man burned A.S. several times with a cigarette and forced her “to take a hit off” a “crack pipe.” When A.S.'s cell phone rang in another room, one of the men retrieved the phone and A.S. never got it back.

¶ 5 After some time, D.L. and K.K. arrived at A.S.'s home and knocked on the door. The men instructed A.S. to open the door to allow D.L. and K.K. in. When D.L. and K.K. entered the home, the men took D.L.'s cell phone, which she also never got back. The third man directed D.L. to sit next to A.S. on a couch and directed K.K. to sit in a recliner near the door. The third man then began questioning D.L. and K.K. about the prior confrontation with the stepson of Defendant's girlfriend. At one point, the men instructed K.K. to put a towel in his mouth. When K.K. refused, a struggle ensued between K.K., Defendant, and the third man. During the struggle, Defendant shot K.K. in the head, killing him. After Defendant shot K.K., both Blankenship and the third man ran out the front door. Before fleeing the scene, Defendant shot A.S. eight times. He then turned the gun on D.L., shooting her seven times. Both A.S. and D.L. survived. Defendant also shot and killed A.S.'s service dog during the incident. After the three men left, A.S. and D.L. managed to exit through the back of the house and call for help. We hereinafter refer to these events as the Salt Lake shooting.

¶ 6 Both A.S. and D.L. later identified Defendant and Blankenship in separate photo lineups conducted by the police. The police arrested Defendant a few days later after a traffic stop. Defendant was a passenger in the front seat of the stopped vehicle. The police found a black semi-automatic .40–caliber Beretta handgun on the front passenger floor of the vehicle. The police also discovered a holster inside Defendant's front waistband. At trial, the State presented evidence from a firearms-identification expert, David Wakefield, linking the Beretta found with Defendant at the time of his arrest to the weapon used in the Salt Lake shooting. The State's evidence also linked the Beretta to a shooting incident involving Defendant that had occurred on March 12, 2007, in West Valley City (the West Valley shooting)—about six weeks before the Salt Lake shooting.

¶ 7 The State charged Defendant with eight first degree felonies and one class B misdemeanor. Prior to trial, the trial court denied Defendant's motion to exclude Wakefield's firearm-identification testimony; granted the State's motion to exclude Defendant's designated firearms-identification expert, David Lamagna, from testifying; granted the State's motion to admit evidence of Defendant's role in the West Valley shooting pursuant to rule 404(b) of the Utah Rules of Evidence; and denied Defendant's motion to suppress the eyewitness-identification testimony of both A.S. and D.L. At the close of the trial, a jury convicted Defendant on all counts. The trial court sentenced Defendant to indeterminate prison terms totaling eighty years to life. 1 Defendant timely appeals.


¶ 8 Defendant raises six principal claims on appeal. First, Defendant argues that the trial court erred by refusing to exclude or limit the State's firearm-identification expert testimony. In the alternative, he argues that the court erred by excluding the firearm-identification testimony of Defendant's expert witness. We review a trial court's decision to admit expert testimony for an abuse of discretion and find error only if no reasonable person would take the view the trial court adopted.” State v. Maestas, 2012 UT 46, ¶ 122, 299 P.3d 892.

¶ 9 Next, Defendant contends that the trial court improperly admitted other-acts evidence pursuant to rule 404(b) of the Utah Rules of Evidence. The State sought to introduce evidence that the handgun Defendant had used in the West Valley shooting was the same weapon used in the Salt Lake shooting. The court allowed the State to introduce this evidence to prove Defendant's identity in the Salt Lake shooting. “A trial court's admission of prior bad acts evidence is reviewed for abuse of discretion, but the evidence must be scrupulously examined by trial judges in the proper exercise of that discretion.” State v. Verde, 2012 UT 60, ¶ 13, 296 P.3d 673 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

¶ 10 Third, Defendant argues that the State prosecutor committed misconduct during his closing rebuttal. We review a trial court's handling of claimed prosecutorial misconduct for an abuse of discretion.” State v. King, 2010 UT App 396, ¶ 13, 248 P.3d 984. Where timely objections to particular statements were not made below, Defendant must establish either plain error or ineffective assistance of counsel to merit reversal. See State v. Lee, 2006 UT 5, ¶ 24, 128 P.3d 1179.

¶ 11 Fourth, Defendant challenges the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress A.S.'s and D.L.'s eyewitness identifications of Defendant. When reviewing a trial court's decision to admit eyewitness identification evidence, we “defer to the trial court's fact-finding role by viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the trial court's decision to admit and by reversing its factual findings only if they are against the clear weight of the evidence.” State v. Ramirez, 817 P.2d 774, 782 (Utah 1991). The trial court's ultimate determination of “whether the[ ] facts are sufficient to demonstrate reliability” is a legal conclusion that we review for correctness. Id.

¶ 12 Defendant next argues that the trial court erred by failing to properly instruct the jury on accomplice liability and by providing flawed instructions on the aggravated robbery and aggravated cruelty to animals counts. “Claims of erroneous jury instructions present questions of law that we review for correctness.” State v. Jeffs, 2010 UT 49, ¶ 16, 243 P.3d 1250. We therefore review “the instructions given to the jury without deference to the trial court.” Id.

¶ 13 Finally, Defendant argues that the cumulative effect of the trial court's alleged errors merits reversal of his convictions. Under the cumulative error doctrine, we must first “apply the standard of review applicable to each underlying claim of error” to determine if error occurred. Radman v. Flanders Corp., 2007 UT App 351, ¶ 4, 172 P.3d 668. We will reverse a conviction only if the cumulative effect of all identified and assumed errors undermines our confidence in the essential fairness of the defendant's trial. State v. Dunn, 850 P.2d 1201, 1229 (Utah 1993).


I. Firearm–Identification Expert Testimony

¶ 14 Defendant argued before the trial court that the firearm-identification testimony offered by the State's expert, Wakefield, was unreliable and therefore inadmissible as expert testimony. SeeUtah R. Evid. 702(b)(2) (“Scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge may serve as the basis for expert testimony only if there is a threshold showing that the principles or methods that are underlying in the testimony ... are reliable....”). In support of his challenge to the reliability of Wakefield's testimony, Defendant sought to introduce Lamagna's testimony criticizing the reliability of firearm identification. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court determined that “Lamagna lack[ed] the practical experience and training necessary to be qualified as an expert in the discipline of toolmark and firearms examination.” Conversely, the court determined that the “State ha[d] made the threshold showing that the principles underlying forensic toolmarks examination are reliable and are based upon sufficient facts and data” and that “in the instant case these facts, data, and principles were reliably applied by Mr. Wakefield.” Accordingly, the trial court allowed Wakefield's testimony and excluded Lamagna's.

¶ 15 On appeal, Defendant maintains that the trial court's decision to allow Wakefield to testify was an abuse of its discretion. Defendant also argues that the court should have, at the very least, prohibited Wakefield from testifying that he could identify the firearm with absolute certainty. Alternatively, Defendant asserts that the trial court should have admitted Lamagna's counter testimony. However, assuming without deciding that the trial court abused...

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