State v. Wood

Decision Date13 May 1982
Docket NumberNo. 16486,16486
Citation648 P.2d 71
PartiesSTATE of Utah, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Walter J. WOOD, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Richard B. MacDougall, Salt Lake City, for defendant and appellant.

David L. Wilkinson, Atty. Gen., Earl F. Dorius, Asst. Atty. Gen., Salt Lake City, for plaintiff and respondent.

STEWART, Justice:

The defendant, Walter J. Wood, was convicted of first degree murder for a murder committed in the course of a robbery and sentenced to death pursuant to Utah Code Ann., 1953, § 76-5-202(1)(d). 1 On this appeal numerous contentions of error are asserted in both the guilt phase and the penalty phase of his bifurcated trial. On September 21, 1981, in a per curiam opinion and order, this Court sustained the conviction, vacated the death sentence, and remanded to the district court to resentence the defendant to life imprisonment as required by § 76-3-207(3). This opinion explains the Court's reasons for having affirmed the conviction and having set aside the death penalty.

Initially, both the defendant Wood and one Joseph J. Johann were charged with first degree murder for the killing of David Aasved during the commission of a robbery, a capital offense under Utah law. As a consequence of a plea bargain, Johann pleaded guilty to robbery of Aasved, agreed to testify against Wood, and received immunity from prosecution for Aasved's murder.

Both Wood and Johann testified at trial, each placing the responsibility for the killing on the other. Johann's testimony, corroborated in the most essential respects by Wood's confession, was as follows: Shortly after midnight on June 10, 1978, Johann and Wood were traveling in a rented automobile from California via Wendover, Utah, to Salt Lake City on Interstate Highway 80. Johann was driving. They stopped to pick up Aasved who was carrying a container of gasoline back to his van, some seven miles farther east, where he had left his wife and children. Aasved sat in the rear of the automobile, and Wood sat in the passenger seat in front with Johann. During the ride, Aasved volunteered the payment of $7 in single bills, and the cash was taken by Johann. As they drew near Aasved's van, Wood, who apparently had been dozing and "was half asleep and half awake," abruptly turned around and, without speaking a word, shot Aasved four or five times in the chest. Johann continued driving past the van and drove off the Interstate at Knolls, Utah. He and Wood dragged Aasved's body off the side of the frontage road and left it. Johann and Wood then continued east on the freeway.

At Teddy Bears, a truck stop on I-80, they left the freeway and, according to Johann, Wood drove away alone and was gone about one hour. There is no testimony as to what Wood did during that time.

After the shooting and the stop at Teddy Bears, Johann and Wood proceeded on to Salt Lake City with Johann at the wheel. There they utilized Aasved's credit cards to obtain lodging, rent another automobile, and purchase binoculars, among other things. On June 12, 1978, Wood and Johann drove to Coos Bay, Oregon, and then to the State of Washington where Wood sold the gun and parted company with Johann. Wood was later arrested in Los Angeles, California, by F.B.I. agents to whom he gave a confession.

At trial Wood testified that he did not kill Aasved. His story was that he and Johann passed through Wendover enroute to Salt Lake City where they arrived at about 7:00 p. m. on June 9. Johann then took the automobile for several hours and did not return until after midnight. Wood admitted that he had confessed to F.B.I. agents in Los Angeles, and sought to explain the confession away on the ground that he had suffered from severe depression and had, in effect, been trying to commit suicide.

In his confession, Wood stated that he had been driving the car and was alone when he picked up Aasved and thereafter shot him. At one point in the confession, in response to a question as to why he shot Aasved, he stated: "I figured he had more money. I guess I figured that." At trial, he acknowledged having used Aasved's credit cards, but claimed that he had received them from Johann in Salt Lake City. He also identified the apparent murder weapon, a .22 caliber Ruger revolver, as one he had owned. The gun had been recovered from a person who had purchased it from him in Washington.

A pathologist testified at trial that Aasved suffered four shots to the chest, one to the shoulder, and three to the head, and that death was caused by the chest wounds. The wounds to the head were inflicted either immediately before or immediately after the chest wounds. There was no testimony as to who inflicted the head wounds.

An experienced criminal lawyer was appointed to represent Wood. The case was tried before a jury in the district court for Tooele County. The court charged the jury on the crimes of first degree murder, second degree murder, and manslaughter; the jury returned a verdict of first degree murder. At the presentence hearing, the State adduced no significant evidence of aggravating circumstances beyond that adduced at trial, and, in urging the death penalty, relied almost solely on the circumstances of the crime as aggravating circumstances warranting the death penalty. The State also placed in evidence two letters written by Wood while in jail awaiting trial. The first letter, dated October 11, 1978, contained a further acknowledgment of the commission of the murder and demanded imposition of the death penalty. The second letter, dated October 16, 1978, recanted the statements made in the first letter. In the second letter, Wood claimed that he wrote the first letter because he could not tolerate the conditions in the jail and wanted to obtain the judge's attention in the hope that he might be moved to another jail.

Wood's mitigation evidence showed no prior criminal record and some possibility of organic brain deterioration from prolonged and extensive alcohol abuse. An alcohol abuse counselor employed by Western Airlines, Wood's former employer, testified at the presentence hearing that Wood had all the symptoms of alcoholism including mental blackouts, one of which he had suffered in the counselor's presence. Up until two years prior to the crime, Wood had had a stable work record, having worked for Western Airlines for thirteen years, part of the time as a chief mechanic. His first marriage had continued for seventeen years and ended in divorce, apparently because of alcoholism. Wood is the father of three children from that marriage.

Wood waived his right to have the jury determine whether the sentence should be life imprisonment or death. Before accepting the waiver, the trial judge, on his own initiative, carefully outlined his own background and beliefs to Wood insofar as they might have been thought to bear on the decision to be made. At the conclusion of the presentence hearing, the trial judge found one aggravating factor and three mitigating factors. On the premise that the "preponderance of the evidence" standard should govern whether aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors, the judge ruled that the aggravating factor preponderated over the mitigating factors, and accordingly imposed the death penalty, even though he indicated that there was a reasonable doubt as to whether the aggravating factor outweighed the mitigating factors.

On this appeal, Wood asserts errors in both the guilt and penalty phases of his trial. We turn first to the penalty phase of the proceeding below and then to the guilt phase.


On direct appeal in capital cases, it is the established rule that this Court will review an error, even though no proper objection was made at trial and even though the error was not raised on appeal, if the error was manifest and prejudicial. State v. Pierre, Utah, 572 P.2d 1338 (1977); see also State v. Cobo, 90 Utah 89, 60 P.2d 952 (1936); State v. Stenback, 78 Utah 350, 2 P.2d 1050 (1931). In the penalty phase, it is our duty to determine whether the sentence of death resulted from error, prejudice or arbitrariness, or was disproportionate. State v. Pierre, supra.

A. Constitutional Background

The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution do not permit imposition of the death penalty in an arbitrary or capricious manner. Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 33 L.Ed.2d 346 (1972). The objective of the law is to require that the discretion of a sentencing body in a capital case be carefully channeled by standards designed and applied to insure that there is a reasonable distinction between those murder cases in which the death penalty is imposed and those in which it is not. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 49 L.Ed.2d 859 (1976); Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242, 96 S.Ct. 2960, 49 L.Ed.2d 913 (1976); Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262, 96 S.Ct. 2950, 49 L.Ed.2d 929 (1976); Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280, 96 S.Ct. 2978, 49 L.Ed.2d 944 (1976); and Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325, 96 S.Ct. 3001, 49 L.Ed.2d 974 (1976). In Gregg, the plurality opinion stated that a death penalty sentencing scheme may not "have standards so vague that they would fail adequately to channel the sentencing decision patterns of juries with the result that a pattern of arbitrary and capricious sentencing like that found unconstitutional in Furman could occur." Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. at 195, n.46, 96 S.Ct. at 2935, n.46. Standards intended to reduce arbitrariness may not describe all murders so that they fail to provide a rational basis for distinguishing between those cases in which the death penalty is appropriate and those in which it is not. Godfrey v. Georgia, 446 U.S. 420, 100 S.Ct. 1759, 64 L.Ed.2d 398 (1980).

The Eighth Amendment requires that the state not act in disregard of the humanity of every individual, no matter how far that person may have fallen...

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