Friday, January 31, 2003
State Supreme Court Rules:
Judge Erred in Finding Acquitted Murder Defendant ‘Innocent’
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge erred in granting a rare finding that an acquitted defendant was “factually innocent” of murder charges, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Justice Janice Rogers Brown, writing for a unanimous court, said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge L. Jeffrey Wiatt abused his discretion in granting Jeanie Louise Adair’s†petition for an exoneration that beyond the jury’s “not guilty” verdict.
Brown agreed with Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler, who as an assigned justice pro tem authored the Court of Appeal’s decision overturning Wiatt’s order, that it was error for the trial judge to grant the factual finding in a case where there was sufficient evidence to sustain a guilty verdict.
“From the statutory scheme [of Penal Code Sec. 851.8], we conclude that although the appellate court should defer to the trial court’s factual findings to the extent they are supported by substantial evidence, it must independently examine the record to determine whether the defendant has established ‘that no reasonable cause exists to believe’ he or she committed the offense charged—,” Brown wrote. “Applying that standard to the facts of this case, we find that defendant failed to carry her burden.”
Prosecutors accused Adair of beating her husband, Robert Adair, to death with a baseball bat in their Sylmar condominium in 1996 for $400,000 in life insurance money.
The jury acquitted her after she contended that the jealous wife of a man with whom she was having an affair set up an attack on the defendant, and that Robert Adair was killed when he walked in on it.
She said a man dressed up as a gas company employee, presumably hired by the jealous wife, tied her up and threatened her while he robbed her house.
Beyond Reasonable Doubt
The District Attorney’s Office later conceded that a jury could have had sufficient reasonable doubt to acquit. But prosecutors fought Adair’s petition for a factual innocence finding, which would have expunged her arrest record and constituted a conclusion that the facts not only supported reasonable doubt, but also proved she did not commit the crime.
Wiatt granted the petition soon after the 1999 trial, but stayed his ruling to allow the District Attorney’s Office to appeal.
In making what lawyers on the case said was an unprecedented finding of factual innocence following a jury trial, Wiatt said he was persuaded by the lack of blood on the defendant’s clothing; a timeline of Robert Adair’s activities that was consistent with his wife’s testimony as to the time he arrived home, while the alleged intruder was still in the house; medical evidence contradicting the prosecution’s theory that Jeannie Adair’s injuries were self-inflicted; and the “uncontroverted” testimony concerning the faux gas company employee.
But Brown agreed with the Court of Appeal that the trial judge cannot grant a finding of factual innocence merely because he or she believes that the evidence supports acquittal.
For the defendant to be declared innocent, the evidence “must exonerate, not merely raise a substantial question as to guilt,” Brown said. The justice agreed with the Court of Appeal panel that “there was clearly enough evidence, (albeit circumstantial), to have allowed the jury to convict defendant.”
Fidler, in his opinion for the Court of Appeal—portions of which were incorporated by Brown into her opinion—said the record could support a finding that Adair beat her husband to death with a bat and to cover up her crime made up the story about the man in the gas company uniform. He also said that since her husband had discovered her affair and was planning to move to Las Vegas with their two children, Adair had a personal and financial motive for killing.
The case is People v. Adair, 03 S.O.S. 516.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company