Utah Supreme Court upholds aggravated murder conviction but remands for possible resentencing and adopts the partial subrogation rule in multi-creditor cases when less than all creditors sign a subrogation agreement.

State v Reece

Reece appealed his conviction for aggravated murder and other charges and his sentence of life without parole. The Court affirmed the conviction and remanded the sentence for further proceedings. It held that the district court erred in not charging the jury on lesser included offenses such as manslaughter as the elements overlap aggravated murder and there was some evidence supporting a finding of unintentional killing. However, the error was a normal trial error not structural error as jury instruction error generally is reviewed for harmlessness. And here there was overwhelming evidence of guilt including the victim’s blood on Reece’s clothing, Reece’s admission he was in the home coupled with an incredible explanation for his presence, and the injuries tot eh victim strongly support the conclusion Reece beat the victim then killed her intentionally with a gunshot to the head. The Court held voir dire was properly limited by the district court and Reece was able to explore the areas of potential bias he wanted through follow up individual questions. The Court held that admission of evidence that Reece possessed a stolen assault gun when he was arrested was properly admitted as it made his identity as the killer more likely as a handgun like the one experts testified killed the victim was also stolen from the same truck as the assault gun and there was no undue prejudice as Reece admitted drug use, home invasion and assault while testifying. The Court affirmed the denial of Reece’s motion to sever his weapons charge as the jury never learned about his convicted felon status. The Court noted that it had recently upheld Utah’s noncapital aggravated murder statute against constitutional attack, but, held that because the district court erroneously interpreted that act to presume a life without parole sentence, the case was remanded for the limited purpose of allowing the district court to determine if its erroneous interpretation affected its sentencing decision.

VCS, Inc. v Countrywide Home Loan, Inc.

VCS sued to foreclose its mechanic’s lien on several lots in Salt Lake City. The district court ruled the lien was junior to a foreclosed trust deed and granted summary judgment to Countrywide and other defendants. The Court affirmed. It held that when three or more creditors have interests in property and less than all the creditors enter a subordination agreement, as occurred here among the various lenders to the developer, only priority among the parties to the agreement is affected. Thus, nonparties, like VCS here, do not jump senior lienholders and summary judgment was correctly entered. The Court noted this is the majority approach among jurisdictions and is the most consistent with Utah’s general contract principle of giving effect to the intentions of the parties to a contract and not taking into account third party interest. The court held that VCS failed to preserve tis argument about the distribution of proceeds from the trust deed foreclosure sale