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State of Idaho v. Ethan Allen Windom

March 16, 2011


Appeal from the District Court of the Fourth Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Ada County. Hon. Cheri C. Copsey, District Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Horton, Justice

2011 Opinion No. 24

Stephen Kenyon, Clerk

The judgment of conviction is affirmed.

Ethan Windom appeals the district court's imposition of a determinate life sentence for the second-degree murder of his mother. We affirm.


Ethan Windom (Windom) lived alone with his divorced mother, Judith Windom (Judith). In late 2006, sixteen-year old Windom was diagnosed as suffering from anxiety and a major depressive disorder with no psychotic features. He was prescribed medications appropriate to those conditions. His counselor expressed concern that Windom may be a psychopath, and noted that if so, his condition was not treatable.

Windom was fascinated by serial killers, psychopaths, and schizophrenics. Beginning in the eighth grade, he modeled aspects of his daily life upon the habits of the protagonist in the movie American Psycho, carrying a briefcase to school, maintaining a specific hygiene routine, and using particular brands of hygiene products and luggage. He kept a day planner within which he wrote about "kill[ing] everyone" and "see[ing] how" human organs would taste. The day planner contained sketched figures of naked women being tortured and killed in gruesome ways.

Windom had an aggressive relationship with his mother. He bullied her into buying him the expensive personal hygiene products and accessories he knew from American Psycho, and intimidated her into occupying their home's smallest bedroom. He dominated the remaining spaces in the home. He repeatedly told his friends that he wanted his mother dead. Windom's father, Judith's ex-husband, testified that on more than one occasion, she had expressed fear that Windom would kill her as she slept.

On the evening of January 24, 2007, Windom experienced a strong urge to kill. He took five times his normal dose of anti-anxiety medication. He considered seeking out "bums" to kill, but feared that his mother would stop him. Instead, Windom fashioned a club by attaching several weights to the end of a dumbbell. He collected two knives and took the club to Judith's bedroom. Windom placed his hand over his mother's mouth while she slept and began to beat her in the face with the club. When his arms tired from the weight, he took one of the knives and stabbed her repeatedly in the throat, chest, and abdomen. Eventually convinced that Judith was dead, Windom removed his hand from what he "thought was her mouth" and thrust the second knife into her exposed brain.

Windom then changed the home's answering machine message to relate that he and his mother had unexpectedly left town to deal with family issues. He called a friend and left her a voicemail stating that he would not meet her as was their normal morning routine. He then attempted to hitchhike to his father's house and eventually walked there. Upon arriving, Windom told his father that someone had attacked Judith and that she was dead. After Windom's father called the police, Windom was arrested and interrogated. Later that day, he confessed to the murder. He was charged as an adult with first-degree murder, eventually pleading guilty to an amended charge of second-degree murder.

While he was incarcerated, two mental health professionals assessed Windom. The first, Dr. Craig Beaver, a licensed psychologist, tentatively diagnosed him as suffering from schizophrenia, paranoid type. Dr. Beaver observed that Windom's symptoms appeared to be in partial remission as he was stabilized by the antipsychotic medication administered during his incarceration. Dr. Beaver opined that the murder occurred during a psychotic break. He noted that research demonstrates that individuals with similar psychiatric illnesses change and modify as they age, and their risk for future violence diminishes "precipitously" after they turn thirty. Dr. Beaver expressed concern that Windom would present a threat of violent behavior if he were to stop regularly taking medication.

The second mental health professional, Dr. Michael Estess, is a psychiatrist. He first met Windom a few days after his arrest. At that time, Dr. Estess viewed Windom as "acutely psychotic." Dr. Estess viewed Windom as suffering from "an evolving paranoid, psychotic, delusional illness." Dr. Estess opined that the murder was "entirely a product of [Windom's] inappropriate, disorganized, illogical and psychotic process that was evolving above and beyond his control." Dr. Estess viewed Windom as having been "perfectly compliant" with all of his treatment recommendations. Finally, Dr. Estess opined that Windom was a "good candidate for treatment, both inpatient and outpatient" and expressed his belief that Windom "would be compliant with treatment recommendation" regardless of whether he were incarcerated.

The district court imposed a determinate life sentence, the maximum sentence permissible for second-degree murder. After the Idaho Court of Appeals affirmed the sentence, this Court granted Windom's petition for review.


Upon granting a petition for review of a Court of Appeals' decision, this Court gives serious consideration to the views of the Court of Appeals, but directly reviews the decision of the trial court. Humberger v. Humberger, 134 Idaho 39, 41, 995 P.2d 809, 811 (2000). Where the sentence imposed by a trial court is within statutory limits, "the appellant bears the burden of demonstrating that it is a clear abuse of discretion." State v. Stevens, 146 Idaho 139, 148, 191 P.3d 217, 226 (2008). When evaluating a claim that the trial court has abused its discretion, the sequence of our inquiry is first, whether the trial court correctly perceived the issue as one of discretion; second, whether the trial court acted within the outer boundaries of its discretion and consistently with the legal standards applicable to the specific choices available to it; and finally, whether the trial court reached its decision by an exercise of reason. Sun Valley Shopping Ctr., Inc. v. Idaho Power Co., 119 Idaho 87, 94, 803 P.2d 993, 1000 (1991).

In order to prevail on a claim that a sentence represents an abuse of discretion, "the defendant must show in light of the governing criteria, [that the] sentence was excessive under any reasonable view of the facts." State v. Charboneau (Charboneau II), 124 Idaho 497, 499, 861 P.2d 67, 69 (1993) (quoting State v. Broadhead, 120 Idaho 141, 145, 814 P.2d 401, 405 (1991), overruled on other grounds by State v. Brown, 121 Idaho 385, 825 P.2d 482 (1992)). Thus, where reasonable minds might differ, the discretion vested in the trial court will be respected, and this Court will not supplant the views of the trial court with its own. Broadhead, 120 Idaho at 145, 814 P.2d at 405. Thus, in order to prevail, the appellant must establish that, under any reasonable view of the facts, the sentence was excessive considering the objectives of criminal punishment: (1) protection of society; (2) deterrence of the individual and the public generally; (3) the possibility of rehabilitation; and (4) punishment or retribution for wrongdoing. State v. Stover, 140 Idaho 927, 933, 104 P.3d 969, 975 (2005).


Although Windom's appeal has been framed as a claim that the district court abused its discretion by imposing a fixed life sentence, careful review of his claim reveals that there is a second distinct issue relating to the legal standard governing imposition of fixed life sentences, specifically, whether a determinate life sentence may be imposed based solely upon the nature of the offense. As part of his argument that the sentence was an abuse of discretion, Windom asserts that the district court's sentence reflected an improper "judicial hedge against uncertainty." We address the question of whether a determinate life sentence may be imposed solely because of the egregiousness of the crime before turning our attention to the claim that the sentence was an impermissible hedge against uncertainty and the broader question of whether Windom's sentence represented an abuse of the district court's discretion.

A. The district court may impose a determinate life sentence based solely upon the nature and gravity of the offense.

On review, Windom suggests that this Court has not held, expressly or impliedly, that the nature of the offense standing alone, can support a determinate life sentence. We disagree. This Court has stated: "To impose a fixed life sentence 'requires a high degree of certainty that the perpetrator could never be safely released back into society or that the nature of the offense requires that the individual spend the rest of his life behind bars.'" Stevens, 146 Idaho at 149, 191 P.3d at 227 (emphasis added) (quoting State v. Cross, 132 Idaho 667, 672, 978 P.2d 227, 232 (1999)).

In State v. Jackson, 130 Idaho 293, 294, 939 P.2d 1372, 1373 (1997), this Court quoted the following language from the Idaho Court of Appeals with approval: "a fixed life sentence may be deemed reasonable if the offense is so egregious that it demands an exceptionally severe measure of retribution and deterrence . . . ." Id. at 294, 939 P.2d at 1373 (quoting State v. Eubank, 114 Idaho 635, 638, 759 P.2d 926, 929 (Ct. App. 1988)).

In State v. Cannady, 137 Idaho 67, 73, 44 P.3d 1122, 1128 (2002), Justice Eismann wrote: "When reviewing a fixed life sentence, the primary factors considered are the gravity of the offense and/or the need to protect society from the defendant." In support of this statement, he cited to our earlier decision in State v. Enno, 119 Idaho 392, 807 P.2d 610 (1991). This is significant because of the following statement in Enno:

Although the sentence is a fixed life sentence with no possibility of parole, we find no abuse in the trial court's decision. Considering the heinous and cruel nature of the crime and that capital punishment was available to the trial court as an alternative based on the aggravating circumstances that were found, the trial court's decision is reasonable and within the maximum statutory limits allowed. Therefore, we affirm.

Id. at 409, 807 P.2d at 627. Today we reiterate that, in appropriate cases, a district court may impose a determinate life sentence based upon the egregiousness of the crime.

B. The district court did not abuse its discretion by sentencing Windom to serve a determinate life sentence.

As a prelude to its lengthy sentencing remarks, the district court explicitly noted that it was exercising its sentencing discretion, stating

I have considered the nature of the offense. I have considered the mental health issues. I have considered mitigating and aggravating factors. I have considered in mitigation, for example, the relative youth. I have considered the fact that he does not have a long criminal record. And I have to say it is the most difficult case I have ever had. Ever. It will haunt me forever. Not just the pictures of the crime scene and what you did to your mom, but the entirety of the case.

It is particularly difficult in this case because, as [the prosecutor] pointed out, I am presented with four different mental health diagnoses in the presentence report, or four different mental health professionals who have had contact with Mr. Windom at various times who have come to either a different diagnosis or a different prognosis.

The court then conducted an extended examination of the evidence relating to Windom's mental health including the differing diagnoses reached by the mental health professionals who worked with Windom prior to the murder and those who saw him later, the circumstances of the murder and Windom's behavior following the crime, including the manner in which he conducted himself during the interviews with law enforcement officers and the content of his statements to investigating officers. The district court concluded:

I don't know which mental health professional has it right. But I tend to agree with [the prosecutor], assuming that Dr. Beaver and Dr. Estess are correct and Mr. Windom is a paranoid schizophrenic, as Dr. Beaver indicated, the safety of society requires a couple [of] things. If Mr. Windom is let out, the safety of society, according to Dr. Beaver, requires that first he be treated by a mental health professional who really has it right and we can have no assurances of that. The second thing is that he actually takes his ...

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