State v. Guthrie

Decision Date16 May 2001
Docket NumberNo. 21388.,21388.
Citation627 N.W.2d 401,2001 SD 61
PartiesSTATE of South Dakota, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. William Boyd GUTHRIE, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtSouth Dakota Supreme Court

Mark Barnett, Attorney General, Grant Gormley, Assistant Attorney General, Pierre, for plaintiff and appellee.

Philip R. Parent of Arneson, Issenhuth & Gienapp, Madison, for defendant and appellant.


[¶ 1.] In this appeal, we affirm the defendant's conviction for murdering his wife.

A. The Drowning

[¶ 2.] At 7:00 a.m. on May 14, 1999, Dr. William B. Guthrie, a Presbyterian minister, called 911 for emergency assistance. Sharon, his wife of thirty-three years, lay naked and unconscious in the bathtub. The first persons to respond found her face down in the empty tub. Guthrie was "on his hands and knees sobbing and asking for help." Two EMTs pulled her out and moved her to a nearby hallway to perform CPR. In their efforts, they became soaked with water. After the ambulance left, Bonnie Dosch, an R.N. who had assisted in attempts to resuscitate Sharon, offered to take Guthrie to the hospital. She helped him put on his shoes and socks.

[¶ 3.] Sharon regained some heart activity in the emergency room, but never breathed on her own and never recovered any brain function. She expired on May 15, 1999, at age fifty-four. Dr. Brad Randall, a forensic pathologist, performed an autopsy the following day. Gastric and blood serum toxicology confirmed the presence of subtherapeutic amounts of two antianxiety agents, Diazepam and Lorazepam, and a sedative, Oxazepam. From the partially digested condition of the tablets, it appeared they could have been taken within four hours before her drowning. Also present was a toxic and debilitating level of Temazepam, but not a fatal overdose. The level of Temazepam in Sharon's system was enough to render her unconscious. Randall estimated that she ingested "about 20" Temazepam capsules, which could not have been taken accidentally. She drowned "because she was incapacitated from the Temazepam dose." In Randall's judgment, her death was not natural and not accidental, but from the autopsy alone he could not resolve whether it was suicide or homicide.

B. The Investigation

[¶ 4.] As the incepting cause of death was medically unattended, Beadle County Chief Deputy Sheriff Jim Sheridan examined and photographed the Guthrie home after Sharon was taken to the hospital. He then took Guthrie's statement. Guthrie said that in keeping with his morning routine, he left the house for about ten minutes of prayer and devotion at his church next door. When he returned he noticed that the hallway floor was wet; he opened the bathroom door and found his wife. He tried to remove her from the tub, but she was too heavy. He drained the water and called for help. Witnesses at the scene recalled that he was not wet or that his knee only was wet. Furthermore, he had no shoes or socks on when the emergency personnel arrived, peculiar in that he said he had just arrived home from devotions at his church. [¶ 5.] Deputy Sheridan learned that the autopsy revealed a large amount of prescription drugs in Sharon's system. He asked Jerry Lindberg of the Department of Criminal Investigation for assistance. They confirmed that Temazepam was present in the household. It had been prescribed for Guthrie as a sleeping aid. Additionally, they discovered that Guthrie had been involved with another woman. When the officers first confronted him about the affair, he denied it, but he soon conceded it was true. Sheridan later obtained a search warrant for Guthrie's home and church office. The officers seized a computer in his office on July 27, 1999.

[¶ 6.] The Guthries had three adult daughters: Suzanne, Jenalu, and Danielle. They knew their father was unhappy in the marriage. He had told Suzanne that he no longer loved Sharon and planned to obtain a divorce after Jenalu's wedding in June. For six or seven years he repeatedly told their youngest daughter, Danielle, not just that he wanted a divorce, but that he hated Sharon, that she was fat and ugly, that she so disgusted him he could not force himself to touch her.

[¶ 7.] Guthrie's adulterous affair spanned from 1994 to 1999. It began while he was serving as a pastor in Orleans, Nebraska. Despite efforts to keep it secret, rumors of his illicit relationship with a married woman who served as an elder in the church ultimately prompted his superior to suggest that it would be best for him to find another position. Guthrie denied any impropriety to both his superior and his congregation. He persisted in saying that he could not consummate a sexual act because he was impotent.1 Nonetheless, he relocated his family to Wolsey, South Dakota, in July 1996, where he began as the pastor for the Wolsey Presbyterian Church. There, an appreciative congregation heard "the best sermons that [they] ever had." But the affair continued.

[¶ 8.] On the pretext of attending counseling or meetings, he and his paramour met in motels in Kansas and Nebraska. He had no sexual performance problems with her. Over the years, they talked "about him at some point being single," so they could be together. She eventually got a divorce. He was hesitant, though, because a divorce with revelations of an affair and his lies about it could affect his future in the ministry. Finally, she became "tired of sneaking around." In January 1999, she told him their relationship was over. It was time to start seeing other people, she said, but she left open the possibility that if he ever left Sharon, they "could date and see how it went." In the months before the drowning, Guthrie continued to talk with her on the telephone two or three times a week. They were intimate on one more occasion in late February. A week after the funeral, he tried to reconnect with her, but she declined. Rebuffed, he told her that it had not taken her long to betray him.

[¶ 9.] Several curious mishaps occurred in the months before Sharon's death. In one case, a cord had been stretched across the steps to the basement. In reporting the incident, Sharon told family members that Guthrie wanted her to come downstairs. When her foot touched the cord, she sat back on the steps. She recalled that Guthrie grabbed her shoulder to keep her from falling. Yet she told her daughter, Suzanne, "Somebody tried to kill me." Suzanne telephoned her dad. Angry that Suzanne had learned of the incident, Guthrie said he had told Sharon. not to tell anybody about it because he was going to discuss it with the sheriff. The next day, however, he told Suzanne that Sharon "had stepped on her shoelace." Suzanne's husband examined the stairs a few days later. Two steps down he saw

shavings like somebody had drilled a hole and there were fresh wood shavings on the carpet. On the other side of the wall it's like a concrete base, there was a round, I don't want to say hole, but there was a place where it looked like something had been glued and then pulled off, but there was actually something that appeared round there.

[¶ 10.] On another occasion, a bathroom light was not working. Guthrie brought in a lamp so Sharon could wash her hair in the bathtub. The lamp fell over. As Sharon later recounted it, she believed the dog bumped the lamp. And Guthrie was there to catch it. Indeed, Guthrie thought he received an electrical shock in the incident and went to the emergency room for treatment. Dr. Richard Reed admitted him overnight for observation, but could find no physical manifestation of electrical shock. The doctor recalled, however, that Guthrie was "extremely anxious, breathing very rapidly, nervous," and complained about "a lot of pain in various parts of his body."

[¶ 11.] Judd Robbins, a computer specialist with several degrees in Computer Science, examined the contents of the church computer's hard drive. He found that the computer had been used to conduct numerous Internet searches on subjects uncannily related to these disquieting incidents and to the drowning. Some of these searches were not connectable to any date; others could be pinpointed to specific days in the months before Sharon's death. Sharon had access to this computer, but she was not very familiar with the Internet. Her daughter had shown her twice how to use a web browser, but other than sending and receiving email, she seemed to have little interest in the Internet. In the two days before the falling lamp episode, the computer in Guthrie's church office had been used for two hours to conduct specific Internet searches using an online search engine—the repeated queries were for "household accidents" and "bathtub accidents."

[¶ 12.] On April 15, 1999, Guthrie brought Sharon to the clinic with the complaint that she could not wake up.2 She was "completely out of it." Twice he told clinic personnel, "I didn't do anything to her." The examining physician, Dr. Jeff Hanson, could find nothing wrong with Sharon. A urine toxicology screen revealed no drugs. The screen would not have revealed the presence of Benadryl, however. Guthrie told the doctor that while sleepwalking Sharon might have taken Benadryl and Codeine. Sharon could remember nothing of the incident the next day, but she believed it was her fault: she had overdosed on her allergy medication (Benadryl) and herbal diet pills. She wanted to lose weight before her daughter's wedding. Her excess weight and her husband's consequent disapproval also concerned her. She once remarked, "As soon as I lose weight, Bill is going to take me on a Cruise."

[¶ 13.] During the month of April, in addition to the searches on household accidents, the church computer was also used to explore details about prescription drugs. An online search engine was engaged to look for such medications as "Lorazepam," "Ativan," "Ambien," and "TCA." Various web pages were downloaded from drug...

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