Friday, June 14, 2002
S.C., Upholding Murder Conviction, Limits Spousal Testimony Privilege
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A witness may not refuse to testify against his or her spouse if the alleged crime was committed against a third person and is closely related to an uncharged crime against the witness/spouse, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The justices unanimously overturned a Fourth District Court of Appeal ruling that had overturned Robert Sinohui’s convictions for murder and kidnapping. Orange Superior Court Judge Richard F. Toohey has sentenced Sinohui to 26 years to life in prison for the killing of his wife’s former boyfriend, Gabriel Terrazas.
Sinohui’s wife, Gina Loiaza, was compelled to testify under Evidence Code Sec. 972(e)(2). The statute provides, among other things, that a witness may not assert the spousal testimony privilege if his or her spouse is charged with an offense “against the person or property of a third person committed in the course of committing a crime against the person or property of” the witness.
According to the trial testimony, Loiaza began seeing Terrazas again—without the defendant’s knowledge, she thought—while married to Sinohui. One evening, however, the pair—in Loiaza’s car—were followed to a secluded spot by two men in separate cars.
Loiaza identified one of the two men as her husband and one of the cars as belonging to his sister-in-law. Terrazas, she said, was forced out of her car and pushed into the trunk of a car being driven by one of the men.
She later heard a gunshot. The next day, she, her husband, and her children left their residence in her car—leaving most of their belongings behind—and drove to a spot where what she believed to be Terrazas’ body was loaded into the trunk of her car.
She accompanied her husband, she said, because she feared for her safety.
The group went to a drainage ditch, she testified, where the body was apparently buried, although she was told not to look. Sinohui and Loiaza and their children did not return home, but stayed in various places until Sinohui was arrested, about 25 days after the body was found.
Blood stains found in the trunk of Loiaza’s car were consistent with Terrazas’ blood type and inconsistent with Sinohui’s.
On appeal, the defense argued that Loiaza should not have been forced to testify. While the privilege is personal to the witness/spouse, Evidence Code Sec. 918 permits reversal if a spouse’s testimony is erroneously coerced.
The defense argued that the Sec. 972 exception did not apply, in that Sinohui was not charged with any crime against Loiaza, and because any crime that may have been committed against her was only incidental to, and not “in the course of,” the charged crimes.
The Court of Appeal agreed, but the Supreme Court rejected both arguments and sent the case back to the lower panel to consider other issues.
Justice Janice Rogers Brown said the statutory language setting out the exception, and the policy behind it, support the prosecution’s view.
“The plain meaning of section 972(e)(2) requires that the accusatory pleading charge defendant with a particular type of crime ‘against . . . a third person’—and not with a crime against his spouse,” the jurist wrote.
Brown explained that the privilege, which originated in medieval times, is rooted in the desire for marital harmony. The Sec. 972(e)(2) exception, like the Sec. 972(e)(1) exception for crimes against the spouse, reflects a legislative judgment that such crimes are disruptive of marital harmony so “that these policy considerations no longer predominate,” the jurist wrote.
Sec. 972(e)(1), she explained further, specifies that a crime against the spouse must be charged for the exception to apply. Had the Legislature intended to require that a crime against the spouse be charged for the third-party exception to apply as well, she reasoned, it would have said so.
Brown went on to say that the defense view of what constitutes the “course of” a crime against the spouse was too limited.
The current statutory language, she said, was part of the original Evidence Code in 1965, and was not intended to change prior law, which applied the exception when the defendant committed a crime against a third party while “engaged in committing and in connection with the commission of a crime” against the spouse.
A reasonable interpretation, consistent with the general rule that privileges are to be construed narrowly, is that the exception applies if the crime against the spouse and the crime against the third party are closely related in time and in logic, Brown said.
Applying that principle to Sinohui’s case, the exception applies, the justice concluded.
“Under the uncontroverted evidence…defendant undoubtedly committed a crime against his wife—i.e., false imprisonment…at the same time he kidnapped and murdered Terrazas,” Brown wrote. “Defendant’s crimes against Terrazas and his wife occurred in close spatial proximity to each other. Finally, even looking at defendant’s crimes in the most favorable light, he committed the crime against his wife to facilitate his crimes against Terrazas.”
The case is People v. Sinohui, 02 S.O.S. 2985.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company