People v. McDermott, S016081.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Citation123 Cal.Rptr.2d 654,51 P.3d 874,28 Cal.4th 946
Docket NumberNo. S016081.,S016081.
PartiesThe PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Maureen McDERMOTT, Defendant and Appellant.
Decision Date12 August 2002

123 Cal.Rptr.2d 654
28 Cal.4th 946
51 P.3d 874

The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent,
Maureen McDERMOTT, Defendant and Appellant

No. S016081.

Supreme Court of California.

August 12, 2002.

Rehearing Denied October 30, 2002.

As Modified October 30, 2002.

123 Cal.Rptr.2d 666
Steffan Imhoff, Del Mar, and Verna Wefald, Pasadena, under appointments by the Supreme Court, for Defendant and Appellant

Bill Lockyer, Attorney General, David P. Druliner, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Carol Wendelin Pollack, Assistant Attorney General, Mary Sanchez, Lori R. Mars, Susan Lee Frierson, John R. Gorey and G. Tracey Letteau, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

123 Cal.Rptr.2d 667

A jury convicted defendant Maureen McDermott of one count of murder (Pen. Code, § 187, subd. (a))1 and one count of attempted murder (§§ 664, 187, subd. (a)). The jury found true special circumstance allegations that the murder was carried out for financial gain (§ 190.2, subd. (a)(1)) and by means of lying in wait (§ 190.2, subd. (a)(15)). Defendant was sentenced to death. This appeal is automatic. (Cal. Const., art. VI, § 11; Pen.Code, § 1239.)


A. Guilt Phase

On April 28, 1985, Stephen Eldridge was brutally stabbed to death in the home he shared with defendant, Maureen McDermott. It was undisputed at trial that the actual killers were Jimmy Luna (a former coworker and personal friend of defendant's) and two brothers whom Luna had hired for the murder, Marvin and Dondell Lee. The prosecution's theory at defendant's trial was that defendant had hired Luna to kill Eldridge so she could obtain sole ownership of a house she co-owned with Eldridge and collect $100,000 under an insurance policy she had on Eldridge's life. Luna (who had pled guilty to first degree murder) and both Marvin and Dondell Lee (who had received complete immunity and were never charged with the murder) testified against defendant. Defendant denied complicity in Eldridge's murder.

1. Prosecution evidence

At the time of Stephen Eldridge's murder in 1985, defendant was 37 years old. During the day, she worked as a registered nurse at a hospital (Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center), and in the evening she provided nursing care to Lee La Porte at his home. Defendant shared a house in Van Nuys with Eldridge, a 27-year-old, self-employed landscaper. They owned the property as joint tenants. In December 1984, defendant and Eldridge had each bought $100,000 in life insurance, designating each other as beneficiary.

In early 1985, defendant's relationship with Eldridge deteriorated. Eldridge complained about the unkempt condition of the house and about defendant's pets. Defendant was upset about Eldridge's treatment of her pets and his plans to sell his interest in the house. Near the end of February 1985, defendant discussed with Jimmy Luna, a hospital coworker and personal friend, a plan to kill Eldridge. Defendant told Luna that she had an insurance policy on Eldridge's life and that she wanted him dead. She offered Luna $50,000 to kill Eldridge, and he agreed. Defendant told Luna that she wanted Eldridge stabbed because a gun would make too much noise, and that she wanted the killing to look like a "homosexual murder" because she thought the police would not investigate the murder of a homosexual as vigorously as other killings. To make the murder look like a homosexual killing, defendant on different occasions suggested that Luna carve out the word "gay" on the body with a knife or cut off the victim's penis.

On three occasions in late February and early March of 1985, defendant arranged for Luna to be at the house she shared with Eldridge so Luna could kill Eldridge. Each time, however, Luna became frightened and could not carry out the murder. Defendant then suggested to Luna that he find someone to help him kill Eldridge, but she told him she did not want anyone but Luna to know of her involvement.

123 Cal.Rptr.2d 668
In March 1985, Luna asked his friend Marvin Lee to help him commit the murder. He told Marvin that an "organization" wanted someone killed, and he offered Marvin $3,000 to "watch [his] back." Marvin agreed. In later conversations, Luna told Marvin that the intended victim was a homosexual and that Luna would castrate the victim to make it look like a "homosexual murder."

In the evening of March 21, 1985, Luna and Marvin knocked on the door of the house where defendant and Eldridge lived. As Eldridge opened the door, Luna and Marvin forced their way inside. Threatening Eldridge with a knife, Luna ordered him to crawl on his hands and knees into the bedroom and to lie facedown on the bed. Luna then cut Eldridge on the buttocks with the knife and yelled homosexual epithets at him. From another room, Marvin retrieved a two-foot-long bedpost, with which Luna struck Eldridge on the head. Eldridge jumped up and ran out of the house. Luna and Marvin left.

Los Angeles Police Officer David Yates, who was dispatched to investigate the attack on Eldridge, found him at the house dressed only in his underwear and covered in blood. An ambulance took Eldridge to a hospital for treatment.

The next day, defendant spoke on the telephone with Luna about the failed murder attempt, telling him, "we are going to have to do it again, and this time you can't fail." After March 21 but before April 28, 1985, there were several telephone conversations between defendant and Luna. During one of these conversations, Marvin was with Luna, and he listened in as defendant discussed the murder plan and what they would do with the anticipated insurance proceeds. Defendant objected to Marvin's participation in the planned murder; she said that if Marvin told anyone about it, Luna would "have to kill that nigger too." Luna assured her that Marvin was trustworthy and would not say anything. Marvin's brother Dondell overheard part of this conversation when Marvin passed him the telephone.

On the day of the murder, April 28, 1985, Luna met Marvin and Dondell Lee, and Luna offered Dondell money to help commit the murder. Luna then made several telephone calls to defendant, during which defendant told Luna that she would leave a front bedroom window open for entry into the house and that Luna should tie her up and cut or hit her so she would look like a robbery victim.

Around 8:15 p.m., Luna, Marvin, and Dondell entered the house through the front bedroom window. Luna went down the hall to defendant's bedroom, where defendant told him that Eldridge had not yet returned from a dinner engagement. Defendant told Luna to cut her on the breast and inner thigh, which he did, to make it appear that Eldridge was killed when he came home while defendant was being robbed.

Around 10:40 p.m., Eldridge came home. When he entered the house, Dondell Lee met him with a rifle owned by defendant, but provided to him by Luna. Marvin Lee then grabbed Eldridge by the neck in a chokehold and took him down the hall, where Luna repeatedly stabbed him until he slumped to the floor. Luna then returned to defendant's bedroom, where he found defendant lying on the floor with a facial injury. Defendant asked Luna how the injury looked, saying she had banged her head on a table in the bedroom. As Luna and the two Lee brothers were about to leave the house, Marvin Lee overheard defendant yell from the back bedroom not to forget to cut off Eldridge's penis. Luna did so.

123 Cal.Rptr.2d 669
Los Angeles County Deputy Medical Examiner Susan Selser performed the autopsy. She testified that Eldridge had been stabbed 44 times and that his penis was cut off postmortem. Of the 44 stab wounds, 28 were independently fatal

On May 23, 1985, Luna was taken into custody for questioning, but he was released within 72 hours. On July 2, 1985, he was arrested for the first degree murder of Eldridge. In August 1985, defendant was also arrested. She was charged with attempted murder, and murder and special circumstance allegations of murder for financial gain and lying in wait. Marvin Lee, who was in custody for an unrelated offense, was granted immunity for the murder of Eldridge in exchange for his confession and truthful testimony. In August 1986, Dondell Lee was granted immunity while in the custody of the California Youth Authority. In July 1989, Luna entered into a plea agreement under which he pled guilty to first degree murder and agreed to testify truthfully in the prosecution of defendant.

2. Defense evidence

The main theory of the defense at trial was that the prosecution had not proven its case against defendant. Defense counsel cross-examined prosecution witness Luna for eight days, thoroughly challenging his veracity. The defense also presented the testimony of five of Luna's former coworkers from Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center that Luna was a habitual liar.

Defense witness Dr. John Ryan, a pathologist, testified that—based on his review of the autopsy report—Eldridge's stab wounds had been inflicted by two different weapons.

B. Penalty Phase

1. Prosecution evidence

At the penalty phase, the prosecution presented evidence that defendant had Luna beat up someone so she could obtain that person's job.

In April 1983, Dewayne Bell, John Phillips, and Philip La Chance worked alternating shifts at the La Porte residence as caretakers for the elderly Lee La Porte. At that time, Bell had worked for the La Portes for five years. While La Chance was in jail for driving under the influence, defendant temporarily assumed his caretaker duties. Defendant told Luna that she wanted permanent employment with the La Portes, and she offered Luna money to injure Bell so she could take his job. Luna later attacked Bell at his home, slashing Bell's face, throat, and chest. When Bell returned to his caretaker duties at the La Portes' home, defendant had Luna repeatedly telephone the La Portes and make threats against Bell when Betty La Porte answered the phone....

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