Friday, October 23, 2009
Court of Appeal Says Statements During Rape Exam Were Hearsay
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Statements made by a sexual assault victim during a rape examination were testimonial hearsay and should not have been admitted at trial, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Div. Four said the statements by Maria R., as she was identified, were prejudicial with respect to the charge that Arnulfo Vargas sexually penetrated her with a foreign object. The justices, however, rejected other challenges raised by Vargas, who was found guilty by a Los Angeles Superior Court jury of 15 offenses involving four different women.
The court left the remaining 14 convictions intact, along with all but eight years of the defendant’s aggregate sentence of 151 years to life in prison.
Testimony with respect to the attack on Maria R. was that the victim entered a business on West Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles and told a woman working there that a man had forced her into his car and made her give him oral sex.
A sexual assault exam took place later that day at California Hospital. The forensic nurse examiner who conducted the exam, Jean Stephenson, completed a standard form, called an OCJP-923 report, as required by statute.
Stephenson, referring to the report, testified that she had asked the victim what happened to her and that—as recorded on the form—Maria R. said the defendant penetrated her with his penis and orally copulated her and forced her to perform oral sex on him. Stephenson added that she observed physical injuries consistent with blunt force trauma.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Curtis B. Rappe overruled the defense hearsay objection to Stephenson’s testimony, agreeing with the prosecution that Maria R. was conveying medical information rather than laying the groundwork for a court case.
But Justice Thomas Willhite, writing for the court, said the statements were testimonial under the line of Supreme Court cases beginning with Crawford v. Washington (2004) 541 U.S. 36.
Willhite cited the recent case of Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts (2009) 129 S.Ct. 2527, in which the court held that “certificates of analysis” sworn to by prosecution laboratory analysts before a notary public and showing that seized evidence was cocaine, were testimonial under Crawford.
Stephenson, the justice noted, had a relationship with law enforcement, and acknowledged in her testimony that the purpose of the examination was to collect evidence that could be used in court and that her report and other evidence were in fact turned over to police.
The interview of the victim, Willhite added, was similar to testimony. “Stephenson questioned Maria according to a rigorous, statutorily mandated format designed to have Maria describe the specific sexual acts which she was forced to perform,” the justice explained.
Attorneys on appeal were Richard A. Levy, by appointment, for the defendant and Deputy Attorneys General Linda C. Johnson and Robert David Breton for the prosecution.
The case is People v. Vargas, B211821.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company