Tuesday, September 23, 2003
C.A. Affirms Valley Man’s Conviction for Beating Girlfriend to Death
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The first degree murder conviction and 25-year-to-life sentence of a Granada Hills man for beating and kicking his girlfriend to death have been affirmed by this district’s Court of Appeal.
In an unpublished opinion by Justice Laurence Rubin, Div. Eight Friday said that Martin Zahorik Jr.’s trial attorney erred in not objecting to testimony that the defendant had beaten a previous girlfriend. But the error was harmless, Rubin concluded, given the strength of the prosecution’s case.
The victim, Lynda Sullo, was alive when a co-worker came to her home after she failed to appear for work on March 28, 2000. The apartment was in shambles, and Sullo, who was lying on the living room floor, was taken to the hospital and died a little over a week later.
Zahorik was charged with murder, and his ex-girlfriend, Janet Zuniga—whom he had not seen in several years—testified that he came to her home the night Sullo was beaten and admitted to her that he had attacked Sullo.
Zahorik testified in his own defense, denying he had beaten Sullo. He admitted that he had argued with her, and had told Zuniga about the argument, but he denied telling Zuniga he had struck Sullo and suggested Zuniga was trying to get even with him for his having ended their relationship.
The prosecutor asked Zahorik whether he had ever done anything “physical” to Zuniga, and he responded that he had only “touched” her once, when she refused to leave his house after they broke up. He was then asked about two other incidents, one in which he allegedly held her head under water, and another in which he allegedly dragged her out of bed by her hair.
Zahorik denied both claimed incidents, and Zuniga was called as a rebuttal witness to testify that both had occurred, although no charges were ever filed. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Warren Greene ruled that the defense had “opened the door” to Zuniga’s testimony, because Zahorik had testified in his own defense and thus laid open the issue of his credibility.
Rubin disagreed, noting it was the prosecutor who first raised the issue of the defendant having been violent toward Zuniga, and that Zahorik had candidly admitted using force to eject her from his residence.
“But having got her foot in the door, the prosecutor then kicked it wide open by asking appellant whether he had attacked Zuniga any other time, to which appellant answered no,” the jurist explained. “Catching him in a seeming lie, the prosecutor sprang her trap and asked about the river and bedside assaults. When appellant denied those events, the prosecutor called Zuniga in rebuttal.”
The prosecutor, Rubin said, improperly cross-examined Zarhorik by asking a collateral question in order to force him either to admit damaging but irrelevant facts or to lie. California law, the justice said, does not permit counsel “to spear a witness on the horns of such a dilemma.”
The defense attorney, the justice went on to say, should have objected as soon as Zahorik was asked about his being “physical.” But even if he had, and if none of the inadmissible character evidence had come in, any reasonable jury would have convicted Zahorik, Rubin said.
Rubin cited the defendant’s inability to explain away the “damning evidence” that Sullo’s blood was on his shoes and clothing, contrary to his testimony that they had merely argued, along with Zuniga’s testimony that he had admitted beating Sullo.
Zahorik was represented in the Court of Appeal by Stephen Temko, a San Diego lawyer appointed by the court. Deputy Attorneys General Steven D. Matthews and David F. Glassman represented the state.
The case is People v. Zahorik, B158147.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company