People v. Roehler

Citation213 Cal.Rptr. 353,167 Cal.App.3d 353
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals
Decision Date25 April 1985
PartiesThe PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Frederick George ROEHLER II, Defendant and Appellant. Crim. 43117.

John K. Van de Kamp, Atty. Gen., Edward T. Fogel, Jr. and Mark Alan Hart, Deputy Attys. Gen., for plaintiff and respondent.

L. THAXTON HANSON, Associate Justice.

Defendant Frederick George Roehler II appeals from the judgment convicting him of the first degree murders of his wife, Verna Roehler and his stepson, Douglas Johnson. Defendant was sentenced to life in state prison without possibility of parole. We affirm the judgment.


By information, defendant was charged in count I with the murder of Verna, in violation of Penal Code section 187. In count II, defendant was charged with the murder of Douglas, in violation of Penal Code section 187. Three special circumstances were alleged: that defendant had committed more than one offense of murder; that the murder of Verna had been intentional and carried out for financial gain; and that the murder of Douglas was also intentional and carried out for financial gain.

Defendant entered a plea of not guilty to both counts and denied the allegations of special circumstances. His motions to suppress evidence were denied, as were his applications for release on bail. Various discovery motions by defendant were granted. Defendant's 995 motion was denied.

Prior to trial, the trial court ruled that the prosecution could not present evidence concerning defendant's relationship with his first wife, Jean Roehler, nor could the prosecution acquaint the jury with the nature Trial was by jury. A portion of the prosecution's case-in-chief consisted of testimony regarding the results of various physical experiments, and the trial court made a series of rulings admitting some testimony and excluding other testimony; these rulings shall be discussed herein as they become relevant to the issues raised on appeal.

and circumstances of Jean Roehler's death and any insurance claim made by defendant with respect to Jean's demise. Defendant's motion concerning this matter, pursuant to Evidence Code section 1101, subdivision (a), was granted because the trial court specifically found that the prejudicial effect of the evidence would outweigh its probative value, as provided in Evidence Code section 352.

Defendant's motion to dismiss the murder counts, made pursuant to Penal Code section 1118.1, was denied. His motion for judgment of acquittal on the special circumstance that the murder of Verna was intentional and committed for financial gain was denied. However, the trial court did grant a similar defense motion with respect to Douglas Johnson, and dismissed the third special circumstance that had been alleged.

The prosecution's requests during rebuttal for the showing of a video tape of experiments at Bird Rock, the scene of the crimes, and that the jury be permitted to travel to that location, were denied. Defendant's renewed motion to dismiss was denied.

The jury found defendant guilty of murder as charged in counts I and II, and found each murder to be of the first degree. The jury further found that the two remaining special circumstances allegations were true.

During the penalty phase of trial, the trial court ruled that the prosecution could present evidence of the drowning of defendant's first wife, Jean Roehler, as a circumstance in aggravation; defendant's motion for a new jury was denied. There were further rulings by the trial court limiting the nature of evidence admissible concerning Jean Roehler's death. After the prosecution had presented this evidence in its case-in-chief, the trial court granted defendant's motion to exclude the evidence, specifically ruling that there was no evidence that Jean Roehler had died by criminal means or at the hands of another person. Defendant's motion seeking a life sentence was denied. His motion for a mistrial was denied.

The jury determined defendant's punishment to be life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Defendant's motion for new trial was denied. The defendant was found ineligible for probation; the trial court further declared that if defendant were eligible for probation, probation would nevertheless be denied, pursuant to Rule 414, California Rules of Court.

Defendant was sentenced to state prison for the term of life without possibility of parole on counts I and II. Sentence on the two counts was ordered to be served concurrently. Sentence on count II was stayed pending appeal, with the stay to become permanent when the sentence on count I has been completed.


As with other trial court judgments, a jury verdict in a criminal case is presumed to be correct on appeal from the judgment of conviction. In the matter before us, the jury was required to resolve very substantial conflicts in the evidence presented. It is well established that an appellate court may not substitute its resolution for that already chosen by the jury, but must uphold such factual determinations--and the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom--if supported by substantial evidence. Inquiry into the substantiality of the evidence, however, is a principal appellate function as is inquiry into other claims of error.

In People v. Johnson (1980) 26 Cal.3d 557, 575-578, 162 Cal.Rptr. 431, 606 P.2d 738, the California Supreme Court analyzed prior California decisions concerning the appropriate standard of review employed Johnson reaffirmed that "the [appellate] court must review the whole record in the light most favorable to the judgment below to determine whether it discloses substantial evidence--that is, evidence which is reasonable, credible, and of solid value--such that a reasonable trier of fact could find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." (Id., at p. 578, 162 Cal.Rptr. 431, 606 P.2d 738.)

by appellate courts when, as here, the sufficiency of the evidence supporting a judgment of conviction was in issue on appeal. The court declared that our courts had generally been consistent in applying the rule set forth by the United States Supreme Court in Jackson v. Virginia (1979) 443 U.S. 307, 318-319, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 2788-2789, 61 L.Ed.2d 560, that " 'the critical inquiry on review of the sufficiency of the evidence to support a criminal conviction [is] to determine whether the record evidence could reasonably support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.' " (Id., 26 Cal.3d at p. 576, 162 Cal.Rptr. 431, 606 P.2d 738.)


Verna Roehler and Douglas Johnson drowned in the ocean near Santa Cruz Island off the Santa Barbara coast, at a location known as Bird Rock, on January 2, 1981. The prosecution charged that these were not accidental drowning deaths, but had been staged by defendant to appear as accidental when in reality they were premeditated murders committed by defendant for financial gain, i.e., for the purpose of collecting the very substantial insurance proceeds payable upon the accidental death of Verna. Defendant insisted that the drownings had occurred accidentally when the dory in which he, Verna, Douglas and the family dog were riding overturned. As defendant was the only witness and sole survivor of the incident, his testimony concerning the events that culminated in the deaths of his wife and stepson was a central issue in this long trial; it provided much of the context in which the evidence on both sides was presented. As we summarize that evidence, we are mindful of the standard of appellate review to which reference has already been made.

Defendant married Verna Jo Johnson in 1977. Each was approximately 35 years of age, and owned property in Malibu. They took up residence there with their four young children of previous marriages: Kimberly Johnson, Heidi Roehler, Douglas Johnson and Kirsten Roehler. (At the time of trial, Kimberly was 11, Heidi was 10, and Kirsten 8. Douglas was eight years old at the time of his death).

The family engaged in much outdoor activity and sports, and enjoyed a high standard of living. In fact, there was considerable evidence at trial that the Roehlers were living beyond their means, that far more money was being expended than was coming in. Defendant, an engineer, was not employed during a portion of the period from 1977 to 1981, due to an injury. Verna worked in a minor capacity, part time, for the Santa Monica School District, with annual earnings of less than $3,000.

A fire had damaged some rental units in Malibu owned by Verna, and defendant and Verna obtained a loan for repairs from the Small Business Administration, using the marital residence as collateral; some of these funds were used to defray family living expenses. Income was also realized from the rental of heavy equipment and labor to other property owners who had sustained damage in the same fire. There was evidence, however, of financial strain. Verna had mentioned this to her good friend, Patti Leitelt, who also testified that on occasion Verna's credit cards were rejected by merchants when she wished to make a purchase.

Prosecution witness Thomas Sever, a certified public accountant in Santa Barbara, testified at trial that after analysis of the couple's financial records it was clear that the Roehlers had made inroads into their capital, that their liquid assets were diminishing, and that the negative cash flow in the years 1979 and 1980 was, respectively, $51,237.04 and $51,891.73. In April 1980, however, the Roehlers acquired the Perseverance In February 1980, defendant talked to his attorney, William Fairfield, at a social gathering about needing to do some estate planning. Attorney Fairfield subsequently advised defendant and Verna on...

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