Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Ninth Circuit Upholds Conviction in ‘American Beauty’ Murder
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A woman whose husband was found dead in their bedroom, in a scene reminiscent of the film “American Beauty,” yesterday lost her bid to overturn her murder conviction.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a two-sentence per curiam opinion, affirmed the denial of Kristin Rossum’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus based on ineffective assistance of counsel.
Prosecutors said Rossum poisoned her husband with the drug fentanyl. At trial, the defense conceded that Greg de Villers died from an overdose of the drug, but claimed he committed suicide because he was despondent after Rossum said she wanted to end the marriage.
The argument failed, as prosecutors argued that Rossum had a strong motive for killing her husband. They claimed she wanted de Villers dead in order to prevent him from disclosing both that she was having an affair with her boss at the San Diego County medical examiner’s office, where she worked as a toxicologist, and that she had a significant methamphetamine habit.
Her lover, Chief Toxicologist Michael Robertson, was considered a possible accomplice in the murder, but was not charged. He was fired from his job and returned to his native Australia.
Rossum was convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. After her direct appeals were rejected by the state courts, she sought a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that her trial lawyers should have conducted a test that would have shown whether samples from an autopsy showing fentanyl levels in his system were contaminated by the medical examiner’s office.
The California Supreme Court summarily denied her petition, and U.S. District Judge Janis Sammartino of the Southern District of California also denied relief. In affirming yesterday, the panel majority, Judge Stephen Reinhardt and Senior Judge Dorothy W. Nelson, cited Harrington v. Richter (2011) 131 S.Ct. 770.
The court held there that in habeas corpus proceedings, federal courts must defer to a state court’s summary disposition if “fair-minded jurists could disagree” as to the correctness of the decision. The court also held that a state court’s rejection of an ineffective assistance claim is entitled to “doubly deferential” review.
Last Year’s Opinion
Last Sept. 24, the same panel agreed with Rossum that counsel failed to meet the required standard of representation, and ordered the district judge to hold a new hearing to determine whether the defendant was prejudiced as a result. But after Harrington came down from the Supreme Court in January, prosecutors asked the Ninth Circuit for rehearing, leading to yesterday’s affirmance in a 2-1 decision.
Judge Nancy Gertner, the author of last year’s opinion, dissented from her colleagues’ conclusion. She said that even giving appropriate deference to the state court’s summary denial as required by Harrington, the panel’s original decision should stand.
Gertner argued that “no fairminded jurist would disagree, based on the record before the state court, that it was unreasonable for defense counsel to pursue a suicide-by-fentanyl theory, with all its defects, without first having de Villers’s specimens tested for metabolites.”
Gertner, then a U.S. district judge for the District of Massachusetts, sat on the Ninth Circuit panel by designation. She resigned from the bench Sept. 1 to become a professor at Harvard Law School, but the court explained in a footnote that she submitted her dissent before her resignation took effect.
The case has been the subject of two books and at least three episodes of “true crime” television programs, featuring the theme of a young, attractive woman from an affluent household in a seemingly solid marriage that was ending after less than two years.
Among the stranger details of the Nov. 6, 2000 death was that de Villers’ body was surrounded by red rose petals with a photo of his and Rossum’s wedding nearby. Rossum claimed that it was de Villers who set up the scene, but it was discovered that “American Beauty,” with its similar scene, was one of Rossum’s favorite films.
Investigation led to Rossum’s arrest seven months after the killing.
The case is Rossum v. Patrick, 09-55666.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company