Monday, February 24, 2003
Children Who Accused Father of Killing Mother Lose Appeal
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A jury verdict exonerating a Torrance man, accused by his children of killing their mother, has been affirmed by this district’s Court of Appeal.
In an unpublished opinion by Justice Earl Johnson Jr., Div. Seven rejected claims of evidentiary and instructional error by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph Kalin at the trial of the suit against Lorrie Tuccinardi.
Tuccinardi, a partner with his brothers in a wood products business, was acquitted by a Superior Court jury of second degree murder in the1996 death of Karen Tuccinardi, his wife of 27 years. But Jason, Daniel, and Jennifer Tuccinardi sued their father for wrongful death, as did Karla Marie Fuerst, Karen Tuccinardi’s daughter from a previous marriage.
The Tuccinardis had marital problems for some time, according to testimony indicating that Karen Tuccinardi slept on the couch of a den at the family home during the two years preceding her death. Lorrie Tuccinardi had consulted a psychiatrist, who prescribed drugs that Tuccinardi described as ineffective and upsetting to his stomach.
Karen Tuccinardi died from a stab wound to the neck. Her husband’s version of the incident was that she came after him with a ball-peen hammer, that he yanked it away from her, and that she then got the butcher knife from the kitchen and swung it at him.
He eventually got hold of the knife, he claimed, but she grabbed it back from him. As they scuffled, he said, she lost her balance and fell on the knife, the force of their two bodies causing it to plunge straight through her neck.
Los Angeles County prosecutors rejected the story, relying on the coroner’s opinion—disputed by a pathologist who testified for the defense—that there were actually multiple stab wounds. They charged Tuccinardi with murder after unsuccessfully urging the Attorney General’s Office to take over the case because of a possible conflict of interest involving the defendant’s brother-in-law, then-Deputy District Attorney Lawrence Longo.
Longo reportedly showed up at the crime scene within hours with defense attorney Leslie Abramson, who eventually represented the defendant in the criminal and civil cases. Longo said he only went to the scene to make sure the children were alright, and that Abramson was there because Longo’s wife had hired the prominent lawyer to represent her brother.
The Attorney General’s Office concluded there was no conflict as long as Longo—who was later fired from the District Attorney’s Office after it was learned that his daughter had signed a recording contract with Death Row Records, whose president, Suge Knight, was a defendant in a case Longo prosecuted—stayed out of the case.
In pressing their wrongful death suit following the acquittal, the children claimed that Lorrie Tuccinardi had killed their mother for financial gain, in that he had transferred their joint funds into an account in his name alone and was the sole beneficiary of her estate. The defendant contended he had transferred the funds, on advice of counsel, in case his wife sued for divorce or tried to have him committed to a mental health facility.
After a trial lasting several weeks, involving dozens of witnesses and hundreds of exhibits, the civil jury returned a unanimous defense verdict.
Johnson, in his unpublished opinion for the Court of Appeal, a copy of which was obtained Friday, said that all of Kalin’s challenged rulings were within the range of judicial discretion.
The plaintiffs claimed the trial jurist—who retired in 1999 but has subsequently sat by assignment—improperly limited their cross-examination of Tuccinardi during the defense case.
But Johnson said the ruling was reasonable in light of the plaintiffs’ unusual trial strategy of presenting the defendant’s videotaped deposition testimony in their case-in-chief, followed by video and audiotapes of Tuccinardi making statements about the events which the plaintiffs said were inconsistent with the deposition.
Kalin, after briefing, said he would allow plaintiffs’ attorney Samuel Salmon to proceed as he wished, but would limit cross-examination of Tuccinardi during the defense case to new matters, not covered by the deposition, so that the plaintiffs would not have “two bites of the apple.”
This was, Johnson wrote, “clearly a proper exercise of the trial court’s discretion under Evidence Code section 352 to prevent an undue consumption of time and the presentation of duplicative evidence.”
The justice also rejected the defense contention that Kalin erred in denying jury instructions on negligence, based on the lack of evidence that Karen Tuccinardi’s death was a result of negligence.
“The children correctly assert a trial court cannot compel a plaintiff to make an election between inconsistent causes of action before submitting the case to the jury or court,” Johnson said. But that does not mean the court is obligated to instruct on a theory not supported by proof, he explained.
The case is Fuerst v. Tuccinardi, B134560.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company