Thursday, July 21, 2005
C.A. Upholds Bar on Cross-Examination of News Reporter
Panel Says Journalist’s Testimony Would Hot Have Helped Defendant Convicted in ‘Shakespearean Tragedy’
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
An Orange Superior Court judge was correct in barring attorneys for a defendant in a double-murder trial from questioning a newspaper reporter about unpublished comments the defendant might have made in a jailhouse interview, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
The June 30 ruling upheld the convictions of Adriana Vasco for the killings of her longtime lover, Ken Stahl, and his wife, Carolyn Oppy-Stahl. Vasco is serving life without parole, as is Dennis Godley, who pled guilty and admitted killing Ken Stahl.
Justice Richard Aronson’s opinion was certified Monday for publication.
The appellate ruling is the latest twist in what the justice called a “Shakespearean tragedy.” Police arrested Vasco more than a year after the November 1999 murders, concluding that she helped Ken Stahl hire Godley to kill his wife, not knowing that Godley—having been fully paid for his services—would also kill Ken Stahl rather than leave behind a witness to the first murder.
Jurors found Vasco guilty of murder in the first degree, with special circumstances of multiple murder and lying in wait, in the death of Ken Stahl and second degree murder in the death of his wife.
The Court of Appeal upheld the second degree murder conviction, saying the killing of Ken Stahl was a “natural and probable” consequence of the plan facilitated by Vasco, which was to kill Stahl’s wife on a lonely highway on the night her husband was supposed to be taking her out for her birthday.
Godley—whose trial was delayed because he had moved back to the East Coast after the murders and been arrested on new charges there—pled guilty last year and was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. But he said, through his attorney, that he had only shot Ken Stahl and that it was Vasco who killed Stahl’s wife.
Plot to Kill
Prosecutors laid out a case that Vasco, a medical secretary, and Stahl, a 57-year-old anesthesiologist, devised the plot to kill Oppy- Stahl, an optometrist. They said that Stahl hired Godley for $30,000 to commit the murder on a deserted stretch of Ortega Highway in San Juan Capistrano.
Vasco initially denied any knowledge of the murders. But she later claimed that she only introduced Godley—a handyman with whom she also shared a romantic involvement—and Stahl because Godley threatened her, and that he forced her to go along with the killings.
Vasco said she told Godley that Stahl wanted to kill his wife, but later told him she was joking. Godley, however, threatened to harm her and her children if she did not introduce him to Stahl.
A few days after her arrest, Godley gave an interview to Orange County Register reporter William Rams. Later called to testify as to the content of the interview, which laid out Vasco’s claims in details similar to those she testified to at trial, Rams invoked the reporters’ shield law.
The shield law, part of the California Constitution, protects reporters from being compelled to identify confidential sources or testify as to unpublished information gathered in their professional capacities. After Rams asserted the privilege, Judge Francisco Briseno ruled that he only had to testify as to the veracity of the published report of the interview, and that the defense could not ask him on cross-examination whether Vasco made any additional, exculpatory statements.
Aronson, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the trial judge was correct.
Under California Supreme Court precedent, he explained, the shield may be pierced only if it is necessary to do so in order to assure the defendant a fair trial. To make the necessary showing, the defense must first establish a reasonable possibility that the reporter’s testimony would have been materially favorable to the defense.
No such showing was made, Aronson said, explaining:
“Much of the information she sought to elicit was cumulative of other admitted evidence. Rams recounted defendant’s statements describing her fear of Godley and his violent conduct. Other witnesses corroborated Godley’s violent character and defendant’s expert explained her battered women’s syndrome defense. Defendant never claimed Rams’s account of his interview with her was untruthful or inaccurate. Thus, defendant’s argument, stripped of its gloss, is merely a request to elicit additional corroborating information from Rams.”
The case is People v. Vasco, 05 S.O.S. 3635.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company