DOWNTOWN L.A. — In what the defense is calling a “very bizarre” decision, the California Supreme Court on Monday upheld the conviction of a former Santa Monica landlord who killed two homeless men and collected on their life insurance policies Monday but ignored the constitutional basis of the appeal.
Helen Golay’s attorney, Roger Diamond, asked that the California Supreme Court take up the case in 2009, arguing that the appellate court had violated Golay’s Sixth Amendment right to confront her accuser by sending a laboratory supervisor to testify to certain evidence rather than the technician who performed the test.
It was one of three cases before the court that looked at the thorny issue which has thus far befuddled state judges who have had little direction from the United States Supreme Court, said Deputy Attorney General David Madeo.
In a 17-page opinion authored by Judge J. Kennard, the court explained that it only needed to look at the constitutional question if the error had played some role in convicting Golay of the murders.
The judges chose not to rule on that issue because “the evidence of Golay’s guilt was overwhelming.”
Golay, a former landlord in Santa Monica, and her co-defendant Olga Rutterschmidt were originally found guilty of the 1999 and 2005 murders of Paul Vados and Kenneth McDavid in 2008.
According to court documents, the pair befriended the two men and convinced them to take out life insurance policies that listed Golay and Rutterschmidt as beneficiaries.
Then, the women drugged Vados and McDavid and ran them over with a vehicle, killing them.
Golay received $1.5 million and Rutterschmidt got $674,571 off of the 13 insurance policies that they managed to collect.
The pair were in their mid-70s at the time.
During the course of the first appeal, Joseph Muto, a lab supervisor, took the stand and testified to analyses conducted by his employees that showed alcohol and sedatives in McDavid’s blood.
Diamond objected, saying that the Sixth Amendment gave Golay the right to face her accuser — in this case, any of four lab technicians connected with the test — directly.
Rutterschmidt’s attorney did not object, and Rutterschmidt lost the right to appeal on that point.
The objection and subsequent arguments before the state Supreme Court opened up a Pandora’s box of questions.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided in the 2009 case Melendez-Diaz vs. Massachusetts that forensic evidence could be manipulated, and wasn’t the inviolate scientific evidence that crime labs represent it to be.
Although an honest analyst wouldn’t alter his or her testimony when forced to confront a defendent, “the same cannot be said of the fraudulent analyst,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in an opinion.
A subsequent decision in Bullcoming vs. New Mexico held that an analyst who did not personally handle or observe the test couldn’t testify in court unless the defendant had an opportunity to confront them.
The last case, Williams vs. Illinois, was decided only after the California Supreme Court took up Golay’s appeal.
Four Supreme Court justices held that the testimony of a forensic biologist did not violate the Sixth Amendment. Justice Stephen Breyer agreed, but on different grounds and wrote his own analysis.
The four remaining justices disagreed.
“That just confused everyone,” Madeo said.
Although pleased with the outcome of the Golay case, Madeo had hoped that the California Supreme Court would rule on the merits of all three cases dealing with the details of the Sixth Amendment to give more clarity for lower courts.
As it stood, the court denied that defendants in the other two — People vs. Dungo and People vs. Lopez — had their rights violated when people other than analysts that conducted certain procedures testified at their trials.
“It’s a really hard issue,” Madeo said. “There are legitimate, good arguments on both sides, depending on the case.”
Diamond was also disappointed that the court ignored the basis of his appeal and the alternative theory he put forward regarding his client’s participation in the deaths of Vados and McDavid.
That account is not present in the opinion released Monday, which he described as bizarre given that the judges ruled entirely on the evidence that convicted Golay.
“You could say we don’t need to reach the constitutional legal issue because it wouldn’t have made any difference factually,” Diamond said. “You have to have the facts brought out by the defense and then say ‘We don’t believe it.’”
For all anyone knows, Muto’s testimony may have violated Golay’s rights, but the court’s treatment of the case made that impossible to determine, Diamond said.
He will go back to his client to see if she wants to fight for a rehearing, something Madeo thinks a court is unlikely to grant.
“I have never seen one,” he said.