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Friday, March 15, 2024


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Prosecution for 1992 Slaying Is Not Barred Despite Dismissal After Two Mistrials—C.A.

Opinion Says Prohibition Against Double Jeopardy Does Not Preclude Re-Filing 1992 Murder Charge


By Kimber Cooley, Staff Writer


The Sixth District Court of Appeal held yesterday that a judge improperly dismissed on double jeopardy grounds the third attempt at the prosecution of a technology company chief executive officer on a murder charge stemming from a slaying that occurred more than 30 years ago, finding that that a 1996 order of dismissal in the interests of justice for insufficiency of the evidence, following two mistrials, did not amount to an acquittal.

New forensic evidence has connected the accused to the crime.

Acting Presiding Justice Allison M. Danner wrote the opinion. It grants a peremptory writ of mandate directing the Santa Clara Superior Court to vacate an order by Judge Shella Deen granting the motion to dismiss and to enter a new order denying the motion.

Justice Daniel H. Bloomberg joined in the opinion and Justice Cynthia C. Lie wrote a concurring opinion.

Arguing against issuance of the writ is John Kevin Woodward, charged with murdering Laurie Houts on Sept. 5, 1992. Houts—a 25-year-old computer science engineer and former three-sport athletic star at San Jose’s Gunderson High School—was found dead in her car about a mile from her workplace in the city of Mountain View.

She had been strangled to death with a rope while seated in the driver’s seat, and the rope had been pulled through her mouth like a gag and knotted behind her neck.

Woodward was identified as a suspect. At the time a roommate of Houts’ boyfriend Brent Fulmer, he had allegedly displayed possessive behavior toward Fulmer and became jealous of the time Fulmer spent with Houts.

Two latent fingerprints belonging to Woodward were recovered on the outside of Houts’s car and fibers collected from masking tape on the free end of the rope were found to be similar to fibers collected from Woodward’s sweatpants. Woodward had no alibi and, during a pretext phone call, did not deny killing her.

The Santa Clara District Attorney’s Office in 1992 charged Woodward with murder. Two jury trials were held and each resulted in a deadlock, with the votes favoring acquittal.

On Aug. 7, 1996, the trial judge ordered the case dismissed pursuant to Penal Code §1385 “in furtherance of justice for insufficiency of evidence.”

In 2021, the Santa Clara County crime lab tested a DNA sample found on the rope and discovered that the sample matched Woodward’s DNA profile, and fibers from Woodward’s sweatpants were found to be indistinguishable from the rope fibers.

In 2022, the prosecution refiled a complaint in Santa Clara Superior Court charging Woodward with  murder.

In the years between the murder and the 2022 complaint, Woodward had moved to the Netherlands and served as chief executive officer of ReadyTech, an online training company based in Oakland. Woodward was arrested at John F. Kennedy Airport after arriving from Amsterdam.

Woodward moved to dismiss, arguing that the prosecution violated his state and federal constitutional protections against double jeopardy found in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, §15 of the California Constitution.

Deen granted the motion, finding that the 1996 dismissal order was based on evidence being insufficient as a matter of law, and was tantamount to an acquittal.

Writ Review

The prosecution filed a writ petition with the appellate court and requested—and was granted— a stay of the order of dismissal. The District Attorney’s Office also sought appellate review of the same dismissal order at issue in the writ proceeding, and that appeal is pending before the Sixth District and awaits briefing.

Woodward disputed the propriety of writ review of the dismissal order, but Danner rejected his arguments, announced that the court was overruling his demurrer, and said:

“[E]ven assuming a mechanism to retain court jurisdiction over Woodward pending appeal, the age of the case, risk of evidence becoming lost or growing more stale, interest of the victim’s immediate family as well as the people of California in obtaining a speedy trial and resolution, and interest in not prolonging Woodward’s pretrial restraint and home monitoring, together confirm that a direct appeal in the ordinary course of law would be neither speedy nor adequate….We conclude that under the unusual circumstances of this case, the prospect of a direct and immediate appeal of the dismissal order is inadequate to serve the interests of the parties and the public.”

Danner set forth the standard for double jeopardy and wrote that “[u]nder both federal and California law, the double jeopardy clause precludes retrial if a court determines the evidence at trial was insufficient to support a conviction as a matter of law.”

She noted that §1385 authorizes California courts to dismiss actions “in furtherance of justice” and gives judges broad authority for dismissal. She turned to the 2000 California Supreme Court case of People v. Hatch and said:

Hatch explained that because section 1385 dismissals are often based on factors other than insufficiency of the evidence, they ‘should not be construed as an acquittal for legal insufficiency unless the record clearly indicates the trial court applied the substantial evidence standard. Specifically, the record must show that the court viewed the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution and concluded that no reasonable trier of fact could find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.’ ”

She continued:

“Applying the rule of Hatch to the 1996 dismissal order, we conclude the record does not clearly indicate that the trial court applied the substantial evidence standard, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, in dismissing the case. We recognize the consequences of this determination are significant. Nevertheless, we believe construing the 1996 dismissal order as an acquittal would be inconsistent with Hatch.”

Federal Case Law

Woodward asserted that the Ninth Circuit’s 1992 decision in Mannes v. Gillespie supports his argument that the words “insufficient evidence” are a term of art and have been found to operate as an acquittal for double jeopardy purposes.

Danner dismissed the merits of this assertion, saying “California courts are not bound by decisions of the lower federal courts even on federal questions.”

She rejected the presumption suggested in Mannes, remarking:

 “The presumption…differs from our Supreme Court’s direction to not presume application of the substantial evidence standard unless the dismissal under section 1385 clearly evidences an intent by the trial court to dismiss for legal insufficiency of the evidence….We are, of course, bound by the standard articulated by our Supreme Court….Applying the Hatch rule, we decline to impute application of the…standard into the trial court’s dismissal decision based solely on the presumption that it employed as a term of art.”

Lie’s Concurring Opinion

Lie joined the majority “in its application of People v. Hatch” and found that the appellate panel was compelled to follow the precedent. However, she explained:

 “I write separately to explain my concern that decisions of the United States Supreme Court have eroded the analytical foundations of the rule announced in Hatch.”

The justice took issue with the idea that there are different standards in the federal case law and California precedent for what counts as an acquittal for double jeopardy application, writing:

“At bottom, our application of Hatch is no more than a determination that the trial court’s dismissal—expressly based on ‘the insufficiency of the evidence’—failed to conform to a state-law standard even though it is an acquittal as defined by the United States Supreme Court.”

She concluded her dissenting opinion with a concern that recent U.S. Supreme Court cases may conflict with Hatch and wrote:

“I respectfully urge the California Supreme Court to reexamine the continuing vitality of Hatch’s narrow definition of an acquittal under federal double jeopardy principles.”

The case is People v. Superior Court (Woodward), 2024 S.O.S. 984.


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