Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Court Upholds Convictions of Two Septuagenarian Murderesses
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
This district’s Court of Appeal yesterday upheld the first-degree murder convictions of Olga Rutterschmidt and Helen Golay, the septuagenarian women who staged the hit-and-run killings of two homeless men in order to collect on their life insurance policies.
Div. Five rejected a variety of constitutional challenges levied by the women, contesting Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David S. Wesley’s rulings allowing the admission of their post-arrest, custodial statements and testimony regarding the presence and quantity of prescription drugs and alcohol in the body of one of their victims.
The panel similarly brushed aside Rutterschmidt and Golay’s claims of prosecutorial misconduct and Golay’s Sixth Amendment argument.
Rutterschmidt and Golay took out several life insurance policies on Paul Vados, 73, and Kenneth McDavid, 50, holding themselves out as relatives or fiancées of the men. Both men were killed in apparent hit-and-run accidents—the former in November 1999 and the later in June 2005—leaving Rutterschmidt and Golay to collect approximately $2.8 million in insurance benefits.
In May 2006, the women were arrested for mail fraud, placed in the same room at the police station and surreptitiously tape recorded. During the ensuing conversation, Rutterschmidt blamed Golay for being “greedy” and raising suspicion by taking out too many insurance policies.
Golay answered: “All they’re after is mail fraud. It is no mail fraud involved.”
The two women then discussed suing the insurance companies that had denied them benefits and mentioned the names of both victims.
A jury found the women guilty of murder and conspiracy to commit murder last year, and also made separate special circumstance findings of multiple murder as to each defendant.
They received consecutive sentences of life without the possibility of parole for each of the murders and a stayed sentence of 25 years to life for conspiracy.
On appeal, the women contested the admission of their recorded statements to each other following their arrest pursuant to a federal warrant, alleging violation of their Fourth Amendment rights.
They accused local and federal authorities of colluding to keep them in custody for the purpose of obtaining incriminating statements and failing to secure a prompt determination of probable cause before a federal magistrate.
Writing for the appellate court, Justice Sandy R. Kriegler noted that judicial determinations of probable cause within 48 hours of arrest will, as a general matter, comply with the promptness requirement, and that the women’s federal probable cause hearing took place within 24 hours of their arrests.
“More importantly, defendants overlook the fact that they had been arrested pursuant to a federal warrant,” he added. “There was thus no need for additional evidence to justify those arrests.”
Rules of Procedure
Turning then to Rutterschmidt and Golay’s argument that admission of their custodial statements violated federal procedural requirements, Kriegler emphasized that the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure are only applicable to the federal courts and do not apply to state court proceedings.
“The fact that defendants were arrested on federal charges and initially placed in federal custody prior to arraignment on federal charges did not make their subsequent prosecution in state court on state murder charges a federal prosecution, subject to non-constitutional, federal rules,” he said.
The women also argued that the testimony by the chief laboratory director of the Department of the Coroner regarding the toxicology analyses of McDavid violated their right to confront adverse witnesses under the Sixth Amendment.
As the director had personally reviewed drug analysis reports performed by analysts under his supervision, was fully qualified to interpret and explain those reports, and offered live testimony subject to cross-examination as to the reported test results, Kriegler reasoned, no Confrontation Clause violation had occurred.
“[T]he fact that the report itself was not admitted at defendants’ trial is crucial for confrontation clause purposes because there can be no violation of a defendant’s confrontation rights where the challenged statement was not admitted for its truth,” Kriegler explained.
Even assuming the witness’s reliance on his supervisees’ data violated Sixth Amendment rights, he continued, the error would have been harmless beyond a reasonable doubt based on the “overwhelming evidence” that McDavid’s killing was not accidental, but the result of a murder scheme intended to make the killing appear to have been an accident.
Kriegler also concluded that the prosecutor did not commit prejudicial misconduct during opening statement and closing argument in referring to the victims’ homelessness and cremation of their remains.
Had the issue been preserved for appeal, Kriegler reasoned that the reference to the victims’ homelessness in the opening statement were not gratuitous in light of the prosecution’s evidence that Rutterschmidt and Golay’s murder conspiracy depended on finding homeless victims.
Further, in light of the “overwhelming evidence as to defendants’ cold-bloodedness and lack of remorse in committing crimes that bespoke a complete lack of compassion for their victims,” Kriegler posited that any perceived callousness with regard to the manner in which the victims’ bodies were disposed of was unlikely to have affected the jury’s deliberations.
The trial court also did not violate Rutterschmidt’s Sixth Amendment right to a unanimous jury and due process by issuing an instruction limiting the scope of the jury’s deliberations upon seating an alternate juror after the jury had reached a partial verdict finding Golay guilty, Kriegler said.
Justices Orville A. Armstrong and Richard M. Mosk joined Kriegler in the decision.
David H. Goodwin, under appointment, represented Rutterschmidt while Janyce Keiko Imata Blair was appointed to represent Golay. Deputy Attorneys General Steven D. Matthews and David E. Madeo represented the government.
The case is People v. Rutterschmidt, 09 S.O.S. 4987.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company