SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The death of a Utah doctor's ex-wife looks like an accident or a suicide rather than a homicide, a forensic expert for the defense testified during the murder trial of John Brickman Wall on Monday.
Salt Lake City cancer researcher Uta von Schwedler, 49, was found dead in a bathtub with shallow wounds cut in a straight line on her wrist, said pathologist Judy Melinek as the trial entered his fourth week.
"Nobody is going to allow another person to stab them, slice them, all in line," she said.
Prosecutors say Wall, 51, attacked his ex-wife in her bed during a bitter custody battle, injected her with the anti-anxiety drug Xanax and drowned her in 2011, leaving blood throughout the house. His lawyers say their theory is unbelievable, and Melinek said it would be an unusual murder.
"I don't think I've seen a case of drugs, a knife and drowning," said Melinek. "It's incredibly rare to unheard of."
But under questioning from prosecutor Anna Rossi, she acknowledged that suicides by drowning in the bathtub are also rare.
Melinek's analysis nevertheless painted a very different picture of the death, one in which von Schwedler scattered pills as she searched for medication to calm herself and smeared blood in the bathroom while lowering herself into the tub, holding a beloved photo album and dropping a small knife in the water.
A defense blood spatter expert said other stains found on her comforter don't necessarily indicate a struggle.
Melinek also questioned the prosecution's timeline in the case, saying that she would have expected more water-related wrinkling on von Schwedler's hands and feet if she was in the bathtub overnight. She placed the death in the afternoon, possibly around the time Wall had an alibi.
Prosecutors say the former couple had fought over family albums, including the one police found in the tub, and the spilled pills indicate someone staged a murder to look like a suicide. Several witnesses, including her sister and her son, have testified that von Schwedler wasn't suicidal, didn't take antidepressants or have a prescription for Xanax.
Von Schwedler's death was a mystery for the medical examiner in Salt Lake City, who thought her wounds looked like a homicide but couldn't explain the presence of the Xanax and stopped short of ruling whether it was a homicide or a suicide.
Salt Lake City police initially treated the death as a suicide. Sgt. Justin Hudson said Monday that defensive wounds are usually deeper, with more bruising, with more wounds on the hands and arms than von Schwedler had.
In the months after her 2011 death, von Schwedler's family and friends pushed for more investigation and their oldest son said publicly he thought his father killed his mother. Wall was arrested and charged over a year after her death.