Lead-Footed Septuagenarians Lose Confrontation Clause Appeal

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 15, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Here's the crazy thing about Confrontation Clause appeals: A confrontation right violation requires reversal of a criminal defendant's conviction unless the prosecution can show "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the error was harmless.

For example, let's say there was a pair of killer grannies who ran over a homeless man and collected over $1 million in life insurance proceeds from his death. It wouldn't matter if the analyst who tested the victim's blood for drugs wasn't the same person who testified at trial that the victim was drugged before his death. In the face of the overwhelming, uncontradicted evidence against the grannies, the California Supreme Court would find that the confrontation violation was a harmless error.

By the way, the sinister septuagenarians in this example? They're real, and they lost their Confrontation Clause appeal this week.

Helen Golay and Olga Rutterschmidt had an M.O.: They befriended low-income/homeless men, took out life insurance policies on their newfound friends, and killed them for the insurance money.

Golay and Rutterschmidt were in their mid-70s when they were charged with murdering two men by running over each of them with a car. By that time, they had already collected over $2.8 million from life insurance policies on their victims.

The prosecution argued that one of the two victims, Kenneth McDavid, had been drugged before he was killed. To prove this point, the state presented the testimony of a laboratory director who, relying on reports that he did not personally prepare, testified that the victim's blood samples showed the presence drugs that could have caused drowsiness.

According to Golay, that testimony violated her Sixth Amendment right to confront and cross-examine the analysts who had tested the blood samples.

The California Supreme Court ruled any that error in allowing laboratory director's testimony was harmless because the state had overwhelming evidence of the pair's guilt. The court noted four, guiding U.S. Supreme Court opinions in its analysis:

  • Crawford v. Washington, holding that admission of an out-of-court statement against a defendant does not violate the Sixth Amendment's confrontation clause unless the statement is "testimonial."
  • Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, finding laboratory certificates fall "within the core class of testimonial statements" so their use at trial violates a defendant's right to confront the analysts who prepared them under Crawford.
  • Bullcoming v. New Mexico, holding that the admission at trial of nontestifying analyst's laboratory report violates a defendant's right to confront an adverse witness.
  • Williams v. Illinois, affirming an Illinois Supreme Court decision allowing an expert witness to testify about DNA testing results performed by non-testifying analysts.

Golay and Rutterschmidt may have lost, but we doubt this is the last we'll hear from these car-wielding senior citizens. Still, based on Supreme Court precedent, it seems unlikely that they will win a federal appeal.

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