Utah Supreme Court weighs case of man who killed his wife, claiming ‘extreme emotional distress’

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Supreme Court is considering whether Tracy Scott got a fair trial, and whether it should be enough to overturn his murder conviction.

The Salem man was initially convicted in the 2013 shooting death of his wife, Teresa. But the Utah Court of Appeals last year overturned it, saying he did not have effective counsel during his trial. In that same ruling, the judges blasted Scott's use of "extreme emotional distress" as a defense and called on the Utah State Legislature to rewrite the law.

Tracy Scott (photo courtesy Utah Dept. of Corrections)

The appeals court said in its ruling that the couple had a history of domestic violence, and the night she died, he was panicked by a gun missing from their safe. He called 911 after shooting her, but argued at trial he was caught up in the emotion and stress of the moment.

On Wednesday, the Utah Supreme Court debated whether Scott's murder conviction should stand. The Utah Attorney General's Office argued that Scott got a fair trial, and his lawyer presented an adequate defense.

One issue of particular interest to the justices was a purported threat that Teresa Scott had made to her husband. Tracy Scott's defense tried to get that threat before the jury, but it was tossed on an objection.

"How can we possibly resolve this in a vacuum without knowing the contents of that threat?" Justice John Pearce asked.

"Because defense counsel is only required to act reasonably," assistant Utah Solicitor General Tera Peterson replied.

Scott's attorney, Doug Thompson, argued that the threat is a key part of what happened.

"The relationship between the threat and his testimony about how the threat changed in his mind when he saw the gun missing, is crucial," he told the court.

Justice Paige Petersen appeared skeptical of Scott's use of "extreme emotional distress," when he was the aggressor in the relationship.

"He's the one who the police had been called about violence he committed. You have his son saying mom really never got physical with him. Yes, they'd fought but he was the one who'd gotten physical, not her. They were afraid he was going to kill her one day. Yet he's taking advantage of this EED defense?" she said.

Thompson argued it was not just about the buildup.

"Extreme emotional distress is about how you acted in that moment," he told the court. "And who caused, and who substantially caused that distress."

In the blistering opinion that overturned Scott's conviction, the judges on the Utah Court of Appeals called on the legislature to make changes to the law. Peterson said the Utah Attorney General's Office would like to see the law changed as well.

"It’s really unfair to have somebody who is the aggressor, somebody who batters his wife to use that as a defense at trial," she told FOX 13 outside of court.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, ran a bill to limit how an extreme emotional distress defense can be used.

It failed to pass the 2018 legislative session.

"We ran out of time," she said.

Rep. Romero said she intended to run the bill again next year, critical of Scott's choice of defense.

"When you’re consistently beating up somebody and you’re torturing them, I don’t see that as extreme emotional distress," she said.

Thompson declined to comment on the case outside of court. The Utah Supreme Court took the issue under advisement. Scott remains in prison while the case is under consideration.