Tuesday, June 7, 2005
State High Court Reinstates Murder Conviction in Child’s Death
Evidence Allegedly Withheld by Prosecutors Not ‘Material’ Under Brady, Justices Rule Unanimously
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The state Supreme Court yesterday reinstated a murder conviction in the death of an 11-month-old girl, saying prosecutors were not obligated to disclose evidence that could have been used to impeach the medical examiner whose testimony established the time of the child’s death.
The court reversed a ruling by this district’s Court of Appeal, which had cited Brady v. Maryland in reversing the second-degree murder conviction of Jose A. Salazar. The defendant was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for killing Adrianna Krygoski in 1996.
Witnesses at his trial testified that the child was in good health when she was left in the care of her babysitter—the mother of Salazar’s girlfriend—but died after Salazar volunteered to watch her while the babysitter ran an errand.
Key testimony at the trial was provided by Deputy Coroner James Ribe, who performed an autopsy on Adrianna. Ribe said the child’s injuries were consistent with severe shaking, could not have resulted from an accidental bump, and would have led to death within at most a few hours.
The doctor’s testimony suggested the injuries must have been inflicted during the time Salazar was watching her, while the defense suggested the child was hurt hours earlier.
The Court of Appeal— Justice J. Gary Hastings authored the opinion for Div. Four—said Salazar’s due process rights were violated by the failure of prosecutors to turn over information about Ribe’s inconsistent testimony in other “shaken baby” cases, including one in which the conviction of Eve Wingfield was overturned after an investigation showed she was not likely present at the time injuries were inflicted on her boyfriend’s two-year-old son, Lance Helms., Lance Helms.
Wingfield, serving a 10-year sentence, was freed and the child’s father was later convicted of the killing.
Salazar’s appellate lawyer sought a writ of habeas corpus in 1999, contending that the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office—which by 1998 had assembled a “Ribe discovery box” of materials for defense attorneys in cases involving the pathologist’s testimony, which by 1999 had grown to over 1,500 pages—had withheld exculpatory evidence that should have been turned over under Brady.
Salazar’s trial lawyer, Van Nuys practitioner Frank DiSabatino, had requested information about Ribe’s testimony in other cases three months before the trial. Instead, the defense insisted, he learned about the Wingfield case from a newspaper article published on the day Ribe was to testify against Salazar.
The appellate court ordered an evidentiary hearing before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael B. Harwin, who had presided at Salazar’s trial.
Harwin found there was “no evidence to show that the trial deputy in the instant case knew of any cases” other than Salazar’s involving Ribe, but said is was “clear that supervisory and administrative personnel were on ‘Ribe notice’ at the time of” the trial.
But Justice Marvin Baxter, writing for a unanimous court, concluded that while the report on the follow-up investigation of the Helms case might have been used for impeachment, it was unnecessary to determine whether the report was “suppressed” because it would not have changed the outcome of the trial, and thus was not material in the Brady sense.
The justice rejected the defense claim that the prosecution could not have connected Salazar with the time frame of Adrianna’s death without Ribe’s testimony.
“Dr. Ribe’s testimony was not the only evidence linking petitioner to the crime,” Baxter explained. He noted that three physicians who examined the child corroborated Ribe’s opinion, and that other experts who could not have been impeached with the allegedly suppressed evidence could have given the same opinion Ribe did.
Nor, the justice said, would a reasonable factfinder find the Helms investigation report significant as impeachment evidence.
“Petitioner’s theory that Dr. Ribe shapes his testimony to fit the prosecution’s case is neither the inevitable nor the most logical inference from the follow-up investigation report. As Dr. Ribe explained, his opinion concerning the Helms murder, in the main, remained consistent throughout. He merely shortened the long end of his estimate of the time of injury and loss of consciousness based on consultations with outside experts and closer examination of the injuries Lance had suffered—but neither of these indicates that Dr. Ribe was biased nor that Dr. Ribe’s modification to his earlier opinion was inaccurate or unjustified.”
Gail Harper, a San Francisco attorney who argued the case for the defense, told the Associated Press she believed the judges interpreted her arguments too narrowly and she may appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. “I’m very disappointed,” she said.
Also arguing before the high court were Deputy Attorney General Michael J. Wise for the prosecution and Chief Deputy Public Defender Michael C. McMahon of Ventura County, representing the California Public Defenders Association as amicus. Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Brent Riggs authored an amicus brief for his office.
The case is People v. Salazar, 05 S.O.S. 2677.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company