Monday, March 16, 2009
C.A. Upholds Conviction for Murder in Case With No Body
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Third District Court of Appeal has upheld a first degree murder conviction in the death of a woman who was last seen alive leaving a Northern California casino with the defendant.
Justice Tami Cantil-Sakauye, writing for the court, said there was sufficient circumstantial evidence to convict Mario Flavio Garcia of the murder of Christie Wilson, and that he was not prejudiced by the admission of evidence that he was uncooperative with police.
The opinion was filed Feb. 25 and certified Wednesday for partial publication.
Wilson, 27, disappeared from the Thunder Valley Casino near Lincoln in Placer County in the early morning hours of Oct. 5, 2005. Casino cameras showed Garcia and Wilson gambling together on the night of Oct. 4, and detectives linked Garcia to the murder through hair follicles with Wilson’s DNA found in and on his car, as well as tiny blood spots matching Wilson’s DNA on one of the seats.
Sgt. Robert McDonald of the Placer County Sheriff’s Dept. identified Garcia as the man who was with Wilson through Garcia’s casino player’s card. He testified that when he went to Garcia’s residence in Auburn and told Garcia that he was investigating a missing person’s case, Garcia nervously explained that he did not want his wife to know he had been gambling and lost a great deal of money.
Garcia acknowledged having met Wilson, McDonald said, but claimed it was coincidence that they left at the same time, and that Wilson had gone back to the casino to retrieve her cell phone. Because casino tapes did not show Wilson returning, McDonald asked Garcia to come in and give a statement.
The detective told Garcia he was a suspect, but not under arrest and was free to leave at any time.
Elaborating on his previous statement, Garcia said that he and Wilson were both drunk, and both losing badly; she talked about her problems with her boyfriend; and borrowed some money from him when hers ran out.
He continued to insist that he went home alone and had nothing to do with Wilson’s disappearance. When the detective noted that he had a small black eye and asked to take a photo, Garcia refused and ended the interview; McDonald said he then attempted to take the photo anyway, but Garcia held his hands up in front of the camera lens.
Garcia, testifying in his own defense, said that Wilson was never in his car, and that he had no idea how her hair or DNA got into the vehicle. He acknowledged washing the car and taking garbage to the local dump shortly after he spoke to McDonald, but said he did so as part of his normal routine.
The bruises he displayed after Wilson’s disappearance came in a fall from a tree, not a fight with Wilson—who had been trained to defend herself by her stepfather, a San Jose police veteran—or anyone else, Garcia said. He also disputed testimony that there had recently been a carpet or rug in the trunk of his car.
A defense witness testified that he met a drunken woman about 20-30 miles from the casino on the night of Oct. 5, and that—although he could not pick Wilson out of a photographic lineup—he had seen a picture of her on the Internet and was 70 to 75 percent sure that she was the woman he met.
Jurors found Garcia guilty of first degree murder and of possessing a deadly weapon—a collapsible baton found in his car when it was searched pursuant to a warrant. His sentence was doubled, and he received a five-year enhancement due to a prior conviction for a violent felony, an assault on a former girlfriend.
The aggregate sentence was 59 years to life in prison.
In the published portion of her opinion, Cantil-Sakauye said that Garcia’s Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights were violated by the admission of evidence that he had refused to be photographed.
“We agree with trial counsel that when defendant ended the interview, he was asserting various constitutional rights: to not be detained, to not incriminate himself, and to have the assistance of counsel,” the justice wrote. Admitting evidence that the defendant insisted on those rights, Cantil-Sakauye wrote, was constitutional error requiring reversal unless harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
The justice went on to say, however, that the evidence was harmless under that standard. The evidence, she said, merely bolstered the prosecution’s “powerful” and “overwhelming” case that Garcia had exhibited consciousness of guilt.
“Defendant had suspicious injuries for which he offered differing explanations. He was growing a beard, perhaps to hide his injuries. His attendance at work was erratic despite the critical stage of his important project. He was extremely nervous when McDonald first contacted him. He took an alternate route home from the casino, but failed to tell the police about it. He was reluctant to point out the car he drove that night. When asked about the clothes he wore that night, he immediately said they were at the cleaners. He made a series of Google searches relating to forensics, date rape drugs and privileges. This evidence, combined with the medical evidence contradicting defendant’s explanations of his injuries, and the forensic evidence that placed Wilson in the back seat and trunk of his car and indicated a violent struggle, was considerable evidence of defendant’s guilt. The addition of his refusal to be photographed and to continue the interview added little to the prosecution’s case.”
In an unpublished portion of the opinion, the justice rejected the argument that there was insufficient evidence to prove first degree murder, on either a premeditation or kidnap-murder theory.
The casino tapes, she explained, showed the defendant steering Wilson towards his car and her appearing to resist, adding that evidence to the hair found in the car suggested that substantial force was used to get her into the car and keep her from leaving. “As such, she is an improbable companion looking forward to further evening activities with defendant,” the justice wrote.
Given that she was never seen again, that her car remained in the parking lot, and that her DNA and blood were found in the car so as to suggest that she was killed during a fight, it was reasonable for jurors to conclude that she was kidnapped, Cantil-Sakauye reasoned.
The justice went on to explain that where the prosecution argues multiple theories of first degree murder, and the evidence is sufficient to support at least one such theory, the conviction is not subject to reversal for insufficiency of the evidence unless the defense shows that the jury relied on a theory as to which the evidence was insufficient.
Since the prosecution argued that felony-murder was the stronger theory and presented “ample” evidence to support it, the justice said, it is unlikely the jury relied solely on premeditation in finding the murder to be of the first degree, and thus was unnecessary for the court to determine whether there was sufficient evidence of premeditation.
The case is People v. Garcia, 09 S.O.S. 1535.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company