Tuesday, July 17, 2001
High Court Upholds Death Sentence in ‘Poisoned by Love’ Murders
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The state Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentence given a Fresno man convicted of killing his mother and two wives by poisoning.
Steven David Catlin was sentenced to death by Kern Superior Court Judge Lewis E. King in 1990 for the 1984 murder of his mother, Martha Catlin, after being convicted of her murder and that of his fourth wife, Joyce Catlin, which occurred in 1976.
The case was the subject of the 1993 television movie “Poisoned by Love: The Kern County Murders.” Steven Catlin was portrayed by Harry Hamlin, better known as one of the stars of the television series “L.A. Law.”
The two crimes were tried together under an information filed in 1985, but the death penalty did not apply to the murder of Joyce Catlin because it occurred before California reinstated the death penalty. Catlin was tried separately in the 1984 death of his fifth wife, Glenna Kaye Catlin, and convicted in 1988.
Catlin’s court-appointed appellate attorney, Horace Freedman of Culver City, argued that it was unfair to prosecute his client in Joyce Catlin’s death because two possible witnesses had died in the interim. Had he not been tried simultaneously for Joyce Catlin’s murder, Freedman further argued, he might not have received the death penalty for killing Martha Catlin.
In any event, Freedman contended, the two murders shouldn’t have been tried together.
Joyce Catlin died in a Bakersfield hospital three weeks after being admitted with flu-like symptoms. The death certificate listed the cause of death as acute respiratory failure to due unknown microorganisms, although paraquat poisoning was suspected.
Paraquat is a herbicide used to control weeds. Experts testified that tests capable of disclosing the presence of the substance more than 72 hours after administration didn’t exist in 1976.
After Martha Catlin died in 1984, doctors concluded she died of paraquat poisoning. After police interviewed doctors who treated and autopsied Joyce Catlin, Steven Catlin was charged with both murders.
He was also convicted in Monterey Superior Court of the murder of Glenna Kaye Catlin, who also died of paraquat poisoning, and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, prior to the Kern County trial.
Prosecutors at the Kern County trial presented evidence of all three murders, although jurors were not told until the penalty phase that Catlin had been convicted in the Monterey case.
They were then told to consider the prior-murder-conviction special circumstance along with the financial-gain, murder-by-poison, and multiple-murder special circumstances they had already found true.
Prosecutors presented evidence that Catlin had financial motives for killing the women—he was the beneficiary of life insurance policies on his wives and the sole beneficiary of his mother’s estate. There was also testimony that he had expressed fear his mother might disinherit him and leave her estate to charity instead, and that she had disapproved of his multiple marriages and divorces.
There was also evidence that Catlin—who worked in agriculture in the 1970s—had access to paraquat and had told people that it could be used to poison someone. Police obtained a bottle of paraquat, with a 1977 date marked on it, from a garage that Catlin shared with Glenna Kaye’s father.
Prosecutors also presented testimony from a jailhouse informant that Catlin asked for assistance in intimidating his third wife—who had persistently told authorities that Catlin murdered the three women—and that Catlin had admitted the killings. In the penalty phase, there was evidence that Catlin had assaulted his first wife in the 1960s.
Catlin testified that he never killed anyone, didn’t have access to paraquat, and never told anyone about the substance’s deadly properties.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George, writing for the high court, said there was no error in trying Catlin for the murder of his fourth wife, or in joining that charge with that of murdering his mother.
Catlin didn’t show that the deceased potential witnesses—employees of the Kern County Coroner’s Office at the time of Joyce Catlin’s death—would have given favorable testimony, the chief justice said. Nor was Catlin prejudiced by his own loss of memory over the intervening nine years, the chief justice said, since there were no significant details that he might have forgotten.
“Moreover, the delay in prosecution was justified,” the chief justice went on to say. “Because of limitations in forensic science and because of the manner in which Joyce’s tissue had been preserved, it would have been extremely difficult or impossible to make out a case against defendant at or near the time of the murder.”
A joint trial was appropriate, George said, because of the similarity between the two murders. And the other-crimes evidence concerning Glenna Kaye Catlin’s murder was admissible for similar reasons, the chief justice said.
“Paraquat poisoning is rare, and its occurrence with respect to two close relatives of one person is unlikely to be a matter of chance or to be the result of a spontaneous impulse,” George wrote. “When evidence of a third instance of the same type of poisoning is introduced, as it properly was in the present case, the inference regarding a common design or plan becomes very strong.”
The case is People v. Catlin, 01 S.O.S. 3394.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company