A life sentence for a former Santa Monica landlord who, along with a co- conspirator, took out insurance policies on two homeless men who were later killed in hit-and-run crashes, was upheld Monday by the California Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court justices found there was "overwhelming" evidence against Helen Golay, who was given a no-parole life sentence in July, 2008 in Los Angeles Superior Court for the murder of two transient men—Paul Vados in 1999 and Kenneth McDavid in 2005.
Golay's lawyer, Roger Jon Diamond, had argued that the trial court violated Golay's Sixth Amendment right to confront and cross-examine witnesses against her. His argument was based on the fact that the director of the coroner's laboratory testified in court, instead of the lab technician who actually performed blood tests on one of the victims.
He argued that even though the director reviewed and signed the lab report and was the director of the laboratory at which both reports were prepared, he was “not really an expert on the subject for which he was testifying.”
Golay and co-conspirator Olga Rutterschmidt befriended and housed the indigent victims for two years, investigators said, to exceed the period under which the life insurance companies could contest the policies. Golay claimed to be the fiancee of both victims, while Rutterschmidt claimed to be a cousin.
Both men were run over by cars.
They became known as the "Black Widow Murders" on an episode of American Greed that aired in 2010 on CNBC, according to Wikipedia. The case was also profiled on an episode of Deadly Women.
Golay was 75 and Rutterschmidt was 73 when they were indicted in July 2006 with the murders.
Crime lab director Dr. Joseph Muto had testified at trial that blood samples from one of the victims showed the presence of drugs that could have caused drowsiness, supporting the prosecution's argument that the victim was drugged before he was run over and killed.
Golay's defense attorney argued Muto "admitted he was not a pharmacologist... and... was... out of [his]... area of expertise," and thus, "essentially operated as a conduit to relate to the jury critical evidence" contained in reports by non-testifying laboratory analysts, whom the defense could not cross-examine.
"We need not decide, however, whether the trial court erred in allowing laboratory director Muto's testimony, because any error did not prejudice Golay... the evidence of Golay‟s guilt was overwhelming," wrote Supreme Court Justice Joyce L. Kennard in the ruling.
Diamond told City News Service that the California Supreme Court "dodged the major constitutional question that was the major issue that they took the case on."
"They have to answer the question of whether the 6th Amendment prohibits the government from using the crime lab supervisor, instead of the crime lab technician," Diamond said. He plans to ask the Supreme Court for a rehearing.
The U.S. Supreme Court has recently ruled that the U.S. Constitution requires a defendant to be able to confront his accuser, if the evidence is "testimonial" in nature. Although four recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions are relevant to that issue and were summarized in Kennard's opinion, the court made no specific findings on that matter in the Golay case.
The opinion cited evidence including a recorded conversation between the co-defendants in a police interview room in which Rutterschmidt blamed Golay
for buying too many insurance policies, drugs found in Golay's home and tissue
samples matching one of the victims on the underside of a car Rutterschmidt
Rutterschmidt's attorney had also requested a review by the Supreme Court, but the justices denied that request.
The appeals court had noted "overwhelming evidence as to defendants' cold-bloodedness and lack of remorse in committing crimes that bespoke a complete lack of compassion for their victims."
A number of technical legal issues were raised by both sides during the
appeals, including whether Muto's blood test evidence was "testimonial."