The California Supreme Court yesterday upheld the first-degree murder conviction of Helen Golay, one of two septuagenarian women who staged the hit-and-run killings of two homeless men in order to collect on their life insurance policies.
The ruling was one of three in which the court rejected defendants’ Confrontation Clause challenges to the admission of expert testimony regarding forensic evidence where the expert who testified was not the one who performed the underlying analysis.
The most notorious of the cases was that of Golay, who along with co-defendant Olga Rutterschmidt, was convicted of the murders of Paul Vados, 73, and Kenneth McDavid, 50. Div. Five of this district’s Court of Appeal affirmed both convictions, along with consecutive sentences of life without the possibility of parole for each of the murders and stayed sentences of 25 years to life for conspiracy.
Rutterschmidt and Golay took out insurance policies on the victims’ lives by holding themselves out as relatives or fiancées. Both men were killed in apparent hit-and-run accidents—Vados in November 1999 and McDavid in June 2005—leaving Rutterschmidt and Golay to collect approximately $2.8 million in insurance benefits.
Mail Fraud Charge
In May 2006, the women were arrested for mail fraud, placed in the same room at the police station and surreptitiously tape recorded. During the ensuing conversation, Rutterschmidt blamed Golay for being “greedy” and raising suspicion by taking out too many insurance policies.
Golay answered: “All they’re after is mail fraud. It is no mail fraud involved.”
The two women then discussed suing the insurance companies that had denied them benefits and mentioned the names of both victims.
The prosecution contended that McDavid had been drugged before he was killed, in support of which it presented testimony by the chief laboratory director of the Department of the Coroner regarding toxicology analyses performed by a subordinate. The defense contended the testimony violated the right to confront adverse witnesses under the Sixth Amendment.
The Court of Appeal, in an opinion by Justice Sandy Kriegler, disagreed.
As the director had personally reviewed drug analysis reports performed by analysts under his supervision, was fully qualified to interpret and explain those reports, and offered live testimony subject to cross-examination as to the reported test results, Kriegler reasoned, no Confrontation Clause violation had occurred.
Justice Joyce L. Kennard, writing for the high court, said it was unnecessary to decide the Sixth Amendment issue because any error would have been harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The uncontradicted evidence showed that Golay and codefendant Rutterschmidt, through fraud, took out 13 insurance policies on murder victim McDavid; that before McDavid’s death, Rutterschmidt and another elderly woman (presumably Golay), bought a car and, to prevent being linked to the car, registered it in the name of a woman whose driver’s license had been stolen; that this was the car later used to run over McDavid; that on the night of McDavid’s killing an elderly woman identifying herself as Golay telephoned to have a tow truck take this very car from a location close to the scene of McDavid’s killing to a place near Golay’s home; and that thereafter Golay collected $1,540,767.05 under the insurance policies she had taken out on McDavid’s life,” the justice explained.
In the other cases, the court held that the Confrontation Clause was not violated by the admission—in a drunk driving manslaughter case—of a laboratory report by a nontestifying analyst, along with testimony by another analyst relating some of the report’s contents, or of a pathologist’s cause-of-death testimony in a murder case that was based, in part, on an autopsy report by another pathologist.
In the manslaughter case, the Fourth District held that the defendant had been unconstitutionally denied the right to question the report’s author. The Supreme Court, however, reversed, filing four separate opinions, including a dissent by Justice Goodwin Liu.
The testifying criminalist explained how his colleague had conducted an analysis putting the blood alcohol concentration in the sample given by the defendant, Virginia Lopez, two hours after the fatal collision, at 0.09 percent, and gave his own opinion that the figure was correct. The defendant testified she drank only two shots of tequila that evening, which a toxicologist testified would have put her BAC at the time of the accident at about 0.04 percent.
Kennard, joined by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Marvin Baxter, Kathryn M. Werdegar, and Ming Chin, said the criminalist’s testimony and the admission of his colleague’s report did not violate the ban on “testimonial” hearsay—as set out in a line of Supreme Court cases beginning with Crawford v. Washington (2004) 541 U.S. 36—because “the critical portions of that report were not made with the requisite degree of formality or solemnity to be considered testimonial.”
Justice Carol Corrigan, joined by Baxter, Werdegar, and Chin, offered a different approach, saying that to the extent notations in the report were relied on by the criminalist, they were “conventional business records” and thus admissible under a traditional hearsay exception.
Liu, dissenting, argued that the statements were testimonial based on their purpose.
“Based on [criminalist] Willey’s testimony, it is apparent that from the moment an evidence bag is opened and the analyst selects a vial for testing by assigning it a lab number and recording the number onto the log sheet, the lab’s procedures are driven by potential use of the results as evidence in a criminal prosecution.,” Liu wrote. “ Thus, the records at issue here, including the analyst’s notations linking defendant to the lab record in question, are testimonial.”
In the murder case, a 5-2 majority concluded that there was no constitutional violation in having a pathologist working for the coroner’s office testify as to “objective facts about the condition of victim Pina’s body, facts he derived from [a subordinate pathologist’] autopsy report and its accompanying photographs.” Kennard wrote for the court that the facts “related to the jury were not so formal and solemn as to be considered testimonial for purposes of the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation right, and criminal investigation was not the primary purpose for recording the facts in question.”
The opinion was joined by Cantil-Sakauye, Werdegar, Baxter, and Chin.
Corrigan, joined by Liu, argued in dissent that the autopsy report “was sufficiently formal and primarily made for an evidentiary purpose, as the United States Supreme Court has explicated those terms to date.”
The cases are People v. Rutterschmidt, 12 S.O.S. 5144, People v. Lopez, 12 S.O.S. 5131, and People v. Dungo, 12 S.O.S. 5148.
Supreme Court Upholds Conviction of Septuagenarian Murderess
Ruling Is One of Three Rejecting Confrontation Clause Challenges to Forensic Evidence
October 16, 2012