Monday, June 27, 2005
C.A. Upholds Convictions of Killers Dubbed ‘Bonnie and Clyde’
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A Hemet-area couple who referred to each other as “Bonnie and Clyde,” according to a friend who turned prosecution witness against them, were properly convicted of first degree murder with special circumstances, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
Div. Two said there was “overwhelming,” “consistent,” and “compelling” evidence that Joshua Wahlert and Tracy Leann Garrison had murdered Michael Willison in 2001, and that they had done so in the course of a robbery and kidnapping. Possible evidentiary or instructional errors by Riverside Superior Court Judge Christian F. Thierbach were harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, Justice Jeffrey King wrote for the panel.
Both defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Wahlert drew an additional term of 25 years to life for shooting the victim, along with a three-year term on a separate charge of brandishing a weapon, while Garrison received a one-year enhancement for participating in a crime with an armed accomplice.
Wahlert was 26, and Garrison 22, when the jury found them guilty of killing the 39-year-old Willison, who lived in Temecula. The pair were tried before separate juries that delivered their verdicts within 90 minutes of each other.
Willison was viciously beaten, stabbed five times in the chest and neck, and shot twice in the head. A jogger found his body near some large rocks in a rural area of the county.
Police tied the killing to Wahlert after he was arrested on the unrelated brandishing charge. Police discovered that the truck Wahlert was driving at the time belonged to Willison, and found clothing stained with the victim’s blood, along with his checks, credit cards and business cards.
Garrison was involved romantically with both Wahlert and Willison, and all three were methamphetamine users, witnesses testified. A friend and fellow user, Jon Ramirez, said that Garrison had talked to him about a plan for her and Wahlert to rob and kill Willison, take his money, then go to Las Vegas to get married.
Ramirez testified that nine days before the body was found, he and Willison were smoking methamphetamine when Garrision and Wahlert came in and abducted Willison at gunpoint. Wahlert was the only one who was armed but Garrison appeared a willing participant, he said.
Wahlert later told him that they had killed Willison and gave him some of Willison’s property, he testified.
The juries also heard a tape recorded phone conversation in which the defendants implicated themselves and each other. The “pretext” call was arranged by two detectives, one of whom was with Wahlert at one location and the other with Garrison at a different location.
While the appeals were pending, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Crawford v. Washington (2004) 541 U.S. 36, concluding that the use of “testimonial” hearsay—out-of-court statements of other persons obtained for use in prosecution, as to which the declarant cannot be cross-examined—violates the Confrontation Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Garrison’s court-appointed appellate lawyer, Richard A. Levy of Torrance, argued that because Wahlert did not testify at trial and could not otherwise be cross-examined, the use of his statements on the tape violated Crawford.
King agreed. The justice said the call was not a “casual” conversation akin to what occurs when the police place suspects together in a patrol car, as prosecutors contended, but a carefully planned means of gathering evidence.
But there was no reasonable possibility that Garrison would have received a more favorable verdict if the jury had not heard the tape, King said, citing testimony from several witnesses to whom Garrison related the details of the crime. While that testimony was not entirely consistent, the justice added, it was clear that Garrison was a willing and active participant in the murder, as well as the events leading up to it.
“As to her participation in the murder, whether as a direct perpetrator or as an aider and abettor of Wahlert’s actions, the evidence of Garrison’s guilt was overwhelming without regard to Wahlert’s statements during the pretext call,” the justice summarized.
King also rejected, in an unpublished portion of the opinion, Wahlert’s claim that the verdict was defective because jurors might have erroneously believed that they could convict him of first degree murder based on implied malice.
The justice agreed that jurors might have been confused because Thierbach gave the standard instructions on murder, both with express and implied malice, but did not give an instruction that murder with implied malice is of the second, not the first, degree.
But since jurors found the kidnap-murder and robbery-murder special circumstance allegations to be true, King explained, they necessarily believed that Wahlert was guilty of first degree felony murder and it made no difference whether they also believed him guilty of malice and premeditation.
The case is People v. Wahlert, 05 S.O.S. 3095.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company