By SANDRA HONG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday affirmed a death sentence for a Los Angeles serial killer who murdered 10 women between 1987 and 1998, while reversing a second-degree fetal murder conviction, finding that expert testimony regarding the fetus’ viability was improperly admitted at trial.
That evidence, Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote in the opinion for a unanimous court, was case-specific hearsay.
Her opinion affirms a judgment of conviction, pursuant to a jury verdict, and a death sentence imposed by then-Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William R. Pounders, who retired in 2011.
Infirmity of the fetal murder conviction, Corrigan declared, does not undermine the sentence, explaining:
“Defendant was a convicted serial killer who preyed on vulnerable women for over a decade. A jury convicted him of strangling his victims and abandoning their corpses in degrading conditions. Apart from the fetal death, the jury found that defendant murdered 10 women…..Moreover, despite the error, the jury was still entitled to give aggravating weight to the fact that defendant murdered a visibly pregnant woman.”
A jury found Turner guilty in 2007 for the killings that marked him as one of the city’s most prolific serial murderers. Among Turner’s victims was 27-year-old Regina Washington, who was nearly seven months pregnant when she was found strangled to death in an abandoned garage about 14 blocks from where Turner lived in September 1989.
Requisite for Conviction
A fetal murder conviction requires a finding that the fetus was viable, which was supported by testimony from deputy medical examiner Lisa Scheinin of the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office. Scheinin had not autopsied Washington’s fetus.
Rather, her testimony was based on findings in the autopsy report showing the fetus met the weight and gestational age under World Health Organization guidelines to be considered viable.
Turner contended that Scheinin’s testimony violated Evidence Code §1200 by relying on case-specific hearsay from the autopsy report to form her opinion. Prosecutors acknowledged that the testimony was hearsay but argued the report was admissible under a hearsay exception.
“[W]hen an appropriate foundation has been laid, autopsy reports have sometimes been admitted as business records….or official records….However, it is significant that the prosecution did not offer the report itself into evidence, and the trial court did not rule on whether it was admissible under either exception….A trial court’s decision to admit evidence under a hearsay exception is entitled to great deference on appeal, but here foundational testimony was neither elicited by the prosecution nor ruled upon by the court.”
She went on to say:
“Had the report been offered and admitted under an exception, the words of the document itself would have constituted admissible hearsay. Dr. Scheinin’s recitation of the content of an unadmitted document remains hearsay for which no exception was established. She was allowed to present inadmissible hearsay as true and supportive of her opinion. This was error under California’s hearsay statutes.”
Explaining the need for reversal, she said:
“Given the significance of the hearsay evidence to the fetal murder charge, and the dearth of other evidence on the issue, we cannot conclude the error was harmless.”
Authorities connected Turner to the murders of the 10 women in 2002 after a homeless woman who knew Turner from the Midnight Mission shelter in the city’s downtown reported Turner had raped and threatened to kill her. His DNA profile matched evidence collected from the 10 murder victims.
All of Turner’s victims were found in the Figueroa Corridor or in downtown Los Angeles in locations that were near where he was living.
In 2014, Turner was convicted of the murders of four other women between 1987 and 1997. The women also were found strangled to death.
Turner’s automatic appeal for that conviction has yet to be heard by the court.
The case is People v. Turner, 2020 S.O.S. 5682.
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