Thursday, December 8, 2011
C.A. Upholds Deputy Sheriff’s Conviction in Murder of Wife
Justices Say Domestic Abuse Evidence Properly Admitted to Prove 25-Year-Old Crime
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Evidence that a Placer County sheriff’s sergeant had abused and tormented his wife, at one point kicking the family dog to death in front of her, was properly admitted at his trial for her murder, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
The justices affirmed Paul Kovacich Jr.’s conviction and 27-year-to-life sentence for the murder of Janet Kovacich, who disappeared on Sept. 8, 1982. A judge ruled in 1995, over her husband’s objection, that Janet Kovacich was dead, and said she likely died the day after she was last seen.
A partial skull found in the area in 1995 was determined to be hers 12 years later. An expert testified that a hole in the cranium likely came from a bullet.
Relying largely on circumstantial evidence, prosecutors charged the victim’s husband, and the case went to trial in 2008. Witnesses testified that Janet Kovacich, who was 18 when she married her former ski instructor, loved her children but was unhappy with the marriage.
Family members and friends testified that she told them about his killing the dog, and of other incidents of being pushed or verbally demeaned by her husband.
Paul Kovacich denied having anything to do with his wife’s disappearance. He denied abusing her or killing the dog, although he said he did kick it several times after it got into the garbage. He said he was slow to react to his wife’s disappearance because he thought she was with her mother.
Kovacich attributed the problems with the marriage primarily to his difficult relationship with his mother-in-law. Janet Kovacich’s parents disapproved of the marriage and did not attend the wedding.
The prosecutor argued that Kovacich’s lack of involvement in the search for his wife, even though he was a certified dog handler, suggested that he knew she was dead.
After hearing from 77 witnesses over four months, the Placer Superior Court jury found the defendant guilty of first degree murder, with personal use of a firearm.
Judge Mark S. Curry sentenced him to 27 years to life in state prison.
Justice Andrea Hoch, writing yesterday for the Court of Appeal, rejected defense claims that there was insufficient evidence to prove that Janet Kovacich was shot to death, and that the trial judge abused his discretion with respect to a number of evidentiary rulings.
The justice cited expert opinion that the hole in the skull was caused by a bullet and that it was likely to have occurred at or around the time of death, contrary to the defense theory that the cranium may have been struck by a camper’s pickax. Jurors were “more than justified” in concluding that the defense theory—which would have required them to believe that the hypothetical camper struck the skill with tremendous force, either without realizing that it belonged to a decomposing corpse or without calling the police—was unreasonable, Hoch said.
Jurors were also entitled, she explained, to rely on circumstances—including the defendant’s “cold” and “aloof” attitude toward the disappearance, the fact that the defendant had a large caliber handgun that might have fired the fatal shot, his familiarity with the area in which the skull was found, and his entering into a new relationship shortly after his wife disappeared and assuring his new girlfriend his wife “wasn’t coming back”—in concluding that Paul Kovacich shot his wife to death.
Hoch went on to say that Curry properly allowed the prosecution to present evidence of the victim’s statements regarding her fear of the defendant, and other evidence of domestic violence.
The evidence was admissible for several purposes, the justice concluded.
By showing her statement of mind, including that she wanted to leave her husband for fear of what might happen to her children, Hoch said, the evidence rebutted the suggestion that she abandoned the youngsters, the older of which was seven years of age.
Hoch cited Rufo v. Simpson (2001) 86 Cal.App.4th 573, in which the Court of Appeal affirmed the civil judgment against O.J. Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. The court held that statements the ex-wife made in a phone call to a battered women’s shelter describing how fearful she was of the defendant were properly admitted as circumstantial evidence of state of mind under Evidence Code Sec. 1250.
Other evidence of domestic violence, the jurist went on to say, was properly admitted under Sec. 1109 to show a propensity to engage in such violence. The evidence was not unduly prejudicial, she said, because it “was highly probative of motive and identity.”
Hoch also rejected a challenge to the testimony of a domestic violence expert, which the justice said was properly admitted to rebut the inference that the victim’s willingness to continue living with the defendant prior to her disappearance meant she was not afraid of him and was not being abused.
The testimony, she said, could not have caused undue prejudice, particularly in light of an extensive cautionary instruction given by the trial judge.
The case is People v. Kovacich, 11 S.O.S. 6539.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company