State of Utah v. Brenda Christine White

2011UT 21
Filed April 19, 2011

The Utah Supreme Court found that A jury can consider past experiences and emotions when deciding whether a defendant acted under extreme emotional distress.

After eleven years of a difficult marriage, Brenda White went through an ugly divorce from her husband Jon. Jon’s behaviors during the marriage, including alleged infidelity, pornography addition, and sexual deviance, caused her to experience great anxiety. After the divorce her stress increased, exacerbated by financial struggles and single parenthood. Brenda attempted to refinance the marital home, which she had been awarded in the divorce, but was told she would need assistance and signatures from John. She went to Jon’s workplace to discuss this with him, but he told her they would have to talk about it at a later time. Brenda returned to Jon’s work place around 4:30 the same day to attempt to discuss the refinancing again. When she arrived she saw Jon leaving the building talking on a cell phone. Brenda claims that Jon had repeatedly denied to her that he owned a cell phone. Brenda testified at trial that at that moment she was overcome with anger and her emotions took control over her. She accelerated her car towards Jon. When he retreated she followed him, driving her car through the building’s double glass doors. After driving into the building’s lobby, Brenda hit Jon twice with her car. He flew over the hood of the car and injured his leg. Brenda was arrested and charged with attempted murder and criminal mischief.

Before her trial, Ms. White filed a motion in limine asking the court to instruct the jury on the defense of extreme emotional distress.1 Ms. White sought to use this defense because, if she was successful, her charges would be reduced from attempted murder to attempted manslaughter. The trial court denied her motion because it said the stressors she experienced were common between divorcing couples and happened too far in advance of the incident. Ms. White appealed to the Utah Court of Appeals, and the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court, saying that, in order to use the defense of extreme emotional distress, the defendant had to show that her loss of self control was “in reaction to a highly provocative triggering event.”2 Ms. White appealed to the Utah Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals had applied too high a standard and remanded the case to the trial court to re-decide again whether Ms. White was entitled to an instruction on the defense of extreme emotional distress. The court reasoned as follows:

  • Because the legislature has chosen to enact a law making extreme emotional distress an affirmative defense,3 a trial court must give the extreme emotional distress instruction if either the prosecution or the defense presents enough evidence to give the jury any reasonable basis for concluding that the defendant acted under extreme emotional distress.4
  • The extreme emotional distress statute requires that in order to use the affirmative defense, the defendant has to show he or she was acting “under the influence of extreme emotional distress . . . for which there was a reasonable explanation or excuse.”5
  • Neither the statute nor case law require that there by a “highly provocative triggering event” that is “contemporaneous” to the defendant’s loss of self control.7This is because a significant mental trauma may have been simmering under the surface for some time. Actions have to be looked at in the context of past experiences and emotions rather than in isolation.
  • Although it doesn’t have to be contemporaneous, an external triggering event is still required. This rules out organic causes of extreme emotional distress such as mental illness.8
  • Extreme emotional distress should be determined by whether a reasonable person in the same circumstances would react the same way, not whether the individual defendant thought she was behaving reasonably.9

1 Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-203.
2 State v. White, 2009 UT App 81, ¶ 23-25, 206 P.3d 646.
3 Since the events in this case occurred, the law has changed such that extreme emotional distress is now treated as special mitigation rather than as an affirmative defense. See Utah Code Ann § 76-5-205.5(1)(b) (Supp. 2009)
4State v. Lowe , 2008 UT 58, ¶ 22, 192 P.3d 867.
5Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-203(4)(a)(i) (2008).
67 White, 2009 UT App 81 ¶¶ 23, 25.
8 Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-203(4)(b).
9 Id. § 76-5-203(4)(c).