SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A jury found a Utah doctor guilty of murder Thursday in the 2011 death of his cancer researcher ex-wife in a largely circumstantial case that came together after pleas from the woman's family and friends.
Salt Lake City pediatrician John Brickman Wall, 51, was convicted of killing the woman amid a bitter custody dispute. He faces up to life in prison. The jury of three women and five men deliberated for about seven hours before reaching the verdict late Thursday night.
Prosecutors alleged Wall attacked 49-year-old Uta von Schwedler with a knife, dosed her with an anti-anxiety drug Xanax and drowned her in her bathtub.
Defense attorneys countered that the theory was unbelievable, and it was more likely von Schwedler killed herself.
Her death initially was treated as a suicide. But family and friends pushed for more investigation, saying the researcher showed no signs of wanting to end her life.
The couple's oldest son, Pelle Wall, said publicly that he thought his father killed his mother.
After the verdict was read, the 21-year-old college student thanked police for years of investigation and "uncommon persistence." He spoke at the courthouse in Salt Lake City surrounded by more than two dozen supporters.
"We have spent the last three and half years seeking justice for my mother, and today that quest is finally at an end," he said.
The victim's sister, Almut von Schwedler, said the Wall children will never be the same, but the verdict is the first step toward closure.
"Johnny never succeeded to destroy Uta's joy for life, but he ended up taking her life," she said. "Revenge was certainly not what drove us in those dark days, and dark and desperate days we had many of."
Prosecutor Matthew Janzen said Pelle Wall played an important part in the case, one of many pieces that formed the largely circumstantial case.
As the verdict was read, John Wall sat with his hands folded and shoulders bent, staring down and blinking rapidly as his frown deepened.
The defendant's sister, Wendy Wall, maintained her brother's innocence.
"This verdict will not bring Uta back," she said in a statement. "Now, to that tragedy has been added the conviction of an innocent man."
The evidence in the case was unusual: A medical examiner thought the shallow cuts on von Schwedler's wrists and leg looked like she was defending herself from an attack, but he couldn't explain the fatal level of Xanax in her system.
Forensic experts had very different interpretations of the scene.
For the prosecution, spilled antihistamine pills on the floor, a house in disarray and bloodstains in von Schwedler's bed showed she was attacked. The defense said the home revealed signs of a troubled woman who died trying to calm herself with medication.
"The state just can't throw up a whole bunch of theories," John Wall's lawyer Fred Metos said during closing arguments Thursday. He added self-injury is a rare side effect of Xanax.
Prosecutors said von Schwedler studied childhood leukemia and recently made a discovery that could help find new treatments for the disease.
She had no prescription for Xanax, but John Wall filled a large one for his mother months before his ex-wife's death.
"He resented her efforts to see the children, to talk with the children, to text the children, to email the children," prosecutor Nick D'Alesandro said during closings. "He just couldn't stop talking about how much he hated her."
The night of their mother's death, the former couple's four children were staying at John Wall's house.
The next morning, he wasn't at home when they woke up. Instead, he went to a car wash and had the interior of his car cleaned, including a pinkish stain, according to prosecutors. He came to work with a scratch on his face and injury to his eye; he said the family dog scratched him while he slept.
Police knocked on John Wall's door that night, hours after von Schwedler's boyfriend found her body. During an intense interrogation, John Wall denied having anything to do with her death.
The couple's oldest daughter, 19-year-old Malkie Wall, testified that her father returned home deeply troubled and asking his children if he was a monster. His lawyers said he broke down after police made him question his sanity, but there's no proof he was in von Schwedler's house.