APEX Events: Utah Court of Appeals

This week’s APEX event was a live session of the Utah State Court of Appeals held at the Great Hall in the Hunter Conference Center, which was judged by Judge Pohlman, Judge Orme, and Judge Mortenson. The case argued was State v. Robertson.

On Sept. 15, 2015, Thade Robertson was sentenced to two consecutive terms of life in prison without parole in the 5th District Court of Utah for the aggravated murder of two individuals in Cedar City. At Thursday’s court session, they addressed whether the lower court had made a critical error. Only a critical error which would have changed the outcome of the case would cause the Court of Appeals to either reverse the outcome or call for a retrial.

It was argued for Robertson by attorney B. Kent Morgan that the 5th District Court of Utah had erred in selecting a jury of 12, when juries of 12 are reserved for cases which the state asserts will lead to capital punishment.

Morgan argued that there was insufficient evidence to assert the claim that the killing of the two persons had been intentional. Morgan claimed that Robertson had been unaware that the revolver was loaded, and thus only meant to scare the first person he is claimed to have murdered. Morgan also argued that the second person he is claimed to have murdered was killed in self-defense.

Attorney Christopher D. Ballard, representing the State of Utah, was allowed a rebuttal. In Ballard’s rebuttal, he argued that there was evidence that Robertson had intentionally murdered the first person.

Ballard argued that, according to Robertson’s testimony, he had intentionally grabbed the gun and loaded it. Claiming that he had not known there was a bullet in the chamber had no basis, as with a revolver one can easily see whether there is a bullet in the chamber. Ballard also argued that the second person who was killed could not have possibly been killed in self defense, as he was sitting and unarmed at the time he was shot.

Morgan chose not to specifically argue the facts brought up by Ballard, and instead focused on arguing whether the case was, in fact, a capital case. Morgan argued that a life sentence without parole, which Roberson is currently serving, is not the same as capital punishment, and that there was an error in the proceedings marking the case a capital case by selecting a 12 person jury.

Judge Pohlman read the law which demarcates the differences between a capital and noncapital case in Utah Law, and asked how Morgan’s interpretation held in light of the case. Morgan argued that the language that the law was written in was unclear and “sarcastic.”

After these arguments were put forth before the three judge panel, they said that they would take the case under consideration, and the court session ended.

Ballard, Morgan, and their associates filed out, the judges “disrobed” and were then joined by President Wyatt for a question-answer session. One of the questions asked was whether the judges “tip their hands,” in other words, whether they show which side they are inclined agree with during the proceedings. The judges replied that they try their hardest not to, knowing that attorneys will in turn try their hardest to figure out the result beforehand. They were also asked how often they overturn the lower courts, and they estimated that it was somewhere around 12-15 percent.

There were also more life-related questions posed. One was whether being a judge has affected their respective personal lives. Judge Mortenson said that he has only had one death threat, and that person is now in prison. Judge Orme said that when you are a judge, you cannot heed politics whatsoever, and you can not fundraise except among your colleagues and superiors.

The question was asked whether the judges would suggest going into a career in the law, to which the response was to only go in if you can handle the stress of the job, you have a love for the law and you are not only looking to make money.

Story By 
Matthew House for SUU News