People v. Franklin

Decision Date07 July 2003
Docket NumberC037197.
PartiesTHE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. MICHAEL ELLISON FRANKLIN, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals


Defendant Michael E. Franklin took his wife, Ronna Franklin, out on a snowmobile ride and drowned her in a puddle of slushy water to collect on her life insurance policies totaling almost $ 2 million. Convicted of first degree murder with special circumstances of lying in wait and murder for financial gain, and sentenced to life in state prison without the possibility of parole, defendant appeals. He alleges numerous instances of trial court error and prosecutorial misconduct. He further asserts the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction. Having reviewed the record and defendant's contentions, we find no prejudicial error, except that the trial court failed to award local conduct credits to which defendant was entitled. We modify the judgment to reflect those credits and affirm the judgment as modified.

Leading Up to Victim's Death

Defendant and Ronna met sometime before 1990 and were married on July 4, 1994. Defendant was six feet, seven inches tall and weighed 300 pounds; Ronna was five, seven inches tall and weighed 168 pounds. At the time of their marriage, Ronna was 35 years old and defendant 32. They desired to have a baby, but Ronna, a diabetic, had difficulty getting pregnant. After becoming pregnant through in vitro fertilization, Ronna spent several months in the hospital because of complications associated with the pregnancy. During that time, defendant seldom visited her and, when he did, they would argue. The infrequency of his visits and his apparent disinterest upset Ronna. Their son, Michael Jr., was born in April 1995, and was just 20 months old when his mother died.

Just before and during his marriage to Ronna, defendant engaged in at least 12 affairs. He gave these women his pager or voice mail number and contacted them periodically. He commonly told the women he did not have a home because he traveled extensively.

Defendant told one of the women, Shelle H., whom he dated throughout his marriage, that he could not spend the Fourth of July holiday with her in 1994 because he had plans with his friends. In fact, defendant did not spend that day with her because it was the day he was marrying Ronna. Defendant also told Shelle, in June 1994, that he had gotten a woman pregnant as a result of a one-night stand. He said he did not love the woman and that she was incapable of taking care of a child. In December 1994, defendant said there was no way the woman would ever have full custody of the child and he was building a case against her as an unfit mother. In January 1995, while his wife was in the hospital because of the complications with her pregnancy, defendant told Shelle that the woman he had impregnated was a diabetic and was in the hospital. In October 1996, another woman defendant was dating, Marsha V., obtained information he was married. When she confronted defendant with that information, he said: "I will get this taken care of."

Defendant told his family and various women different stories about his employment. He worked for an engineering company. He owned several businesses, including a company that owned and rented out hospitals, a tanning salon, a company that published a magazine, and a construction company. He was an investor. He worked for the Secret Service or the military on the weekends. He did bodyguard and undercover work on the side. He flew an airplane. He was a computer engineer or consultant. He had played for the Raiders. His ambition for the future was to be president of the United States.

Credible evidence showed defendant had a construction company, which incurred considerable debt, before the marriage. During the marriage, defendant owned a computer business (PNM Associates), a magazine company (publishing Future Power), and a T-shirt business (Franklin Apparel). These businesses, however, reported large losses during the marriage. He also owned rental properties, but reported net losses from them. Ronna worked for Raley's and earned between $ 49,000 (in 1995, including sick pay) and $ 71,000 (in 1996) per year while married to defendant. Because of defendant's losses, the couple jointly reported annual taxable income for the years 1994 through 1996 varying from $ 0 (in 1996) to $ 9,000 (in 1994).

In September 1996, defendant and Ronna obtained life insurance policies from Metropolitan Life. They purchased a $ 1 million term policy on defendant and a $ 750,000 universal life policy with an additional $ 250,000 accidental death benefit on Ronna. Defendant's premium was $ 124 per month, while the semiannual premium for Ronna's coverage was $ 4,633.75. Defendant and Ronna also obtained life insurance from Farmers New World Life: a $ 750,000 universal life policy for each. The semiannual premium for this coverage was $ 6,000. Defendant and Ronna named each other as the primary beneficiary of the policies. Ronna was also covered by a $ 120,000 life insurance policy through Raley's under which the beneficiary would receive double the amount if she died as a result of an accident. Defendant and Michael Jr. were co-beneficiaries on the policy.

Consequently, Ronna was covered by almost $ 2 million dollars in case of accidental death. The coverage defendant and Ronna obtained in 1996 cost $ 22,755.50 per year. In 1996, Ronna's wages totaled $ 71,000 but the couple's taxable income was $ 0.

Ronna told friends she and defendant were having problems in their marriage. In the summer of 1996, she was considering leaving defendant. She was frustrated over how much time defendant spent away from home. She talked to her father about the possibility of a divorce. On one occasion, Ronna's father saw Ronna hit defendant, who responded by grabbing her by the shoulders, pulling her up to his face, and warning: "Don't ever let that happen again." Ronna hesitated to go forward with divorce because she did not want to share custody of Michael Jr. As it was, the weekends were the only time she had with him.

Defendant heard a friend who had been through a divorce say that the court had ordered him to pay his ex-wife 78 percent of his gross income. Defendant said no one would ever do that to him. During this conversation, Ronna said she would just leave defendant, and defendant replied: "You ever do that to me, I'd kill you." During a similar conversation about spousal support, defendant became indignant and said he would kill anyone that did that to him. His standard response to talk about Ronna leaving him was "Nobody ever leaves me" and "There is no way you're ever going to leave me. It's not going to happen."

Ronna wanted to retire from Raley's to spend more time with Michael Jr. She believed defendant should get a regular job instead of being a business entrepreneur. She told a friend she had given defendant an ultimatum, warning him that, if they had another child, she would retire and stay home.

In December 1996, defendant planned a snowmobiling trip to Bucks Lake in Plumas County for Ronna and him. For Christmas, defendant gave Ronna a ring and a snowmobile helmet. She became upset when she opened the helmet. Defendant urged her to try it on, but she resisted and cried during their ensuing verbal exchange. She told several people she did not want to go to Bucks Lake. She did not like the cold, was afraid of storms, and did not want to leave the baby. Defendant, however, encouraged her to go by buying her rings and flowers. The day before they left, she told her mother she had not been feeling well for the past week. She was on her period, suffered from cramps, and had a yeast infection.

Testimony Concerning Day of Victim's Death

Defendant and Ronna stayed at Bucks Lake Lodge in Plumas County. On December 28, 1996, Ronna's 38th birthday, she and defendant went for a ride on a snowmobile defendant had purchased. Although defendant claimed Ronna was driving the snowmobile and he rode as a passenger behind her, witnesses who saw them on the snowmobile that day only saw defendant operating the snowmobile with Ronna riding as a passenger in front of him. It was raining, causing the snow on the ground to turn slushy. As a result of what defendant asserted was an accident, the snowmobile came to rest along the side of a road where there was a three-foot-deep puddle of slushy water.

Deborah and Eric Ingvoldsen were traveling on their snowmobiles when they noticed the Franklins' snowmobile, upright, with the motor still running and the headlight on, stopped in the slushy water at the edge of the road. Just behind the snowmobile, defendant was sitting, immersed in the water up to his chest, leaning back against the snow bank. His head was straight, not leaning to either side. Mrs. Ingvoldsen got off her snowmobile and approached the Franklins' snowmobile on foot. Although defendant was wearing a helmet, she could see that defendant's eyes were closed and his face was flushed. After she yelled to defendant, with no response, Mrs. Ingvoldsen saw a yellow slicker under the water and a helmet floating in the water. Upon closer inspection, she saw Ronna under the water, her eyes wide open and her lips blue. With the help of her husband and Jeff Wisecarver, who had just arrived on the scene from the opposite direction, Mrs. Ingvoldsen pulled Ronna out of the water.

Defendant's color was good, and steam was rising from his chest. Jay Grubbs arrived on the scene, and the three men pulled defendant from the water. Mr. Ingvoldsen took defendant's helmet off and tried to feel a pulse, but he was unsuccessful because his hands were too cold. Defendant appeared to be unconscious, but his skin was slightly reddish. Even though he later realized he should have known defendant was alive by his skin coloring, Mr. Ingvoldsen began...

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