DOWNTOWN — A former Santa Monica landlord who is serving a life sentence for the murders of two homeless men for financial gain may have another shot at proving her innocence.
The California Supreme Court agreed last week to hear an appeal filed by Helen Golay, 78, whose attorney claims her Sixth Amendment rights were violated during her criminal trial because she was not allowed to confront technicians who conducted toxicology tests related to the case. If the court finds in her favor, Golay would be entitled to a new trial.
“It doesn’t mean they are going to reverse [the verdict], but it is a very important step,” said Golay’s attorney, Roger Diamond, who has a practice on Main Street. “They didn’t have to take the case at all.”
Legal experts said the ruling is important given the increased use of scientific testing and other forensic evidence.
Golay and Olga Rutterschmidt of Hollywood were ordered to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing Kenneth McDavid and Paul Vados in separate yet eerily similar hit-and-runs that took place in Los Angeles area alleys.
If Golay is granted a retrial, Diamond feels he has a better shot of winning an acquittal if she is tried alone without Rutterschmidt. Diamond said Rutterschmidt’s attorney repeatedly told jurors that Golay was the mastermind of the operation.
In 2005, McDavid’s body was found lying in an alley behind Westwood Boulevard. His DNA was eventually discovered on the undercarriage of a car tied to Golay, who owned three apartment buildings in Ocean Park. Vados was found dead in a Hollywood alley.
Throughout the trial, the prosecutors painted the two women as greedy and cold-hearted, plucking vulnerable homeless men off the street, arranging rent-free apartments and gaining their trust, killing the men after convincing them to add the women onto insurance policies.
A state appellate court in August reaffirmed the guilty convictions, however, a ruling in June by the U.S. Supreme Court has called into question that decision.
In her appeal to the state Supreme Court, Golay argues that the admission of the coroner’s testimony showing the presence of various prescription drugs and alcohol in McDavid’s blood samples violated her right to confront adverse witnesses under the Sixth Amendment. Instead of the actual technicians who performed the toxicology report, the prosecution called a supervisor to testify on the findings.
Prosecutors tried to show that drugs found in McDavid’s system matched those found in Golay’s home, alleging that she drugged the victims so she and Rutterschmidt could kill them.
In People V. Geier, the California Supreme Court permitted a DNA expert to testify that based on her review of the notes prepared by another, non-testifying expert, the DNA extraction was conducted according to protocol. Based on the genetic profiles extracted, the expert testified that the DNA extracted from the vaginal swabs of the rape-murder victim matched the defendant’s DNA.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is a violation of the Sixth Amendment right of confrontation for a prosecutor to submit a chemical drug test report without the testimony of the actual scientist who performed the test, creating a difference of opinion between the two courts.
In the opinion authored by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the court found that scientific evidence is not “immune from the risk of manipulation.” It cited a study of forensic laboratories where analysts would falsely record results of tests never performed because of the high volume demands of law enforcement.
The court held that an opportunity for confrontation would give the forensic witness the opportunity to recant a previously falsified report. The court cited one particular study of defendants whom had achieved exoneration, finding that invalid forensic testimony contributed to a false conviction 60 percent of the time.
“A forensic analyst responding to a request from a law enforcement official may feel pressure — or have incentive — to alter the evidence in a manner favorable to the prosecution,” Scalia wrote. “Confrontation is designed to weed out not only the fraudulent analyst, but the incompetent one as well.”
During the trial, Diamond objected to testimony provided by the supervisor, raising concerns about his client’s Sixth Amendment rights. His objection was overruled. Diamond also questioned the supervisor about the availability of his technicians to testify. The supervisor said the technicians were still employed by the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office.
“I did that to lay the groundwork for an appeal,” Diamond said.
Golay is currently serving a life term at the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, Calif.
“What is keeping her going psychologically is looking forward to something, this appeal,” Diamond said. “She is very excited. It gives her hope for the future.”