Skip to content
Main Menu
Utah Attorney General
Attorney General
Sean D. Reyes
Utah Office of the Attorney General
Secondary Navigation

AGO Highlights

Criminal Appeals Division

The Criminal Appeals Division, represented by Karen Klucznik, won an important victory for victims in the case of State v. Smith. This victory took more than a decade, a statutory amendment, and many lost arguments in the appellate courts.

The background is this: Traditionally, extreme emotional distress (EED) mitigation applied to limited situations where it is understandable for someone to lose self-control and respond violently to a provocation—think of finding your spouse in bed with someone else. Because it is understandable, society views a defendant who loses self-control and kills under those circumstances as less culpable. But over many decades, Utah courts shifted the focus to the defendant’s lifetime of experience leading up to his or her loss of self-control. That approach allowed perpetrators of domestic violence to claim EED based on a turbulent relationship and allowed others to claim EED based on only the slightest provocation—or a common event, such as divorce—so long as it follows a history of buildup, even when the defendant did nothing to resolve it. Put another way, the defendant’s internal turbulence became its own excuse.

In 2019, Karen Klucznik, together with a team of dedicated AGO attorneys, drafted amendments to the EED statute that sought to restore the traditional defense by, among other things, (1) limiting the defense to EED “predominantly caused by the victim’s highly provoking act immediately preceding the defendant’s actions”; and (2) not allowing the defense when the alleged highly provoking act “is comprised of words alone.” The Legislature easily passed the amendments.

Which brings us to State v. Smith. The victim, Smith’s wife, announced that she wanted a divorce and began to pack up her things. After about 25 minutes, Smith shot the victim seven times in the back, killing her. At trial, the court did not permit Smith to argue EED in light of the statutory amendments, ruling that the victim engaged in no highly provoking act by announcing and executing her plan to divorce; and the 25 minutes Smith spent deciding what to do evidenced sufficient self-control as to exclude him from EED. The court of appeals affirmed in a unanimous decision that had no difficulty concluding that the statutory amendments excluded Smith from the defense. Under the old statutes and case law, Smith very likely would have been able to claim the defense and reduce his culpability based solely on how the victim’s announcement made him feel.

The Criminal Appeals Division considers this to be a monumental break with several unjust decisions of the past, and at long last gives abused women (and men) a privilege to leave their abusers without thereby creating the legal means for their abuser to escape justice for murdering them. 

Congratulations to Karen for this tremendous victory that will doubtless benefit victims and serve justice for years to come.