People v. Schultz

Decision Date23 November 2020
Docket NumberS114671
Citation271 Cal.Rptr.3d 387,475 P.3d 1073,10 Cal.5th 623
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Michael Joseph SCHULTZ, Defendant and Appellant.

Jeralyn Keller, under appointment by the Supreme Court, for Defendant and Appellant.

Kamala D. Harris and Xavier Becerra, Attorneys General, Dane R. Gillette, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Lance E. Winters, Assistant Attorney General, Jaime L. Fuster, Joseph P. Lee and Ryan M. Smith, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

Opinion of the Court by Cantil-Sakauye, C.J.

A jury convicted defendant Michael Joseph Schultz of the first degree murder of Cynthia Burger ( Pen. Code, § 187, subd. (a) ),1 and found true the special circumstance allegations that the murder was committed while defendant was engaged in the commission of rape and burglary (§ 190.2, subd. (a)(17)(C), (G)). After a penalty phase trial, the jury returned a verdict of death. Defendant moved to modify his sentence to life without the possibility of parole. (§ 190.4, subd. (e).) The trial court denied the motion and sentenced him to death. Defendant's appeal is automatic. (§ 1239, subd. (b).) We affirm the judgment in its entirety.

A. Guilt Phase Evidence
1. Prosecution evidence

Cynthia Burger lived in a condominium complex in Port Hueneme, a city located in Ventura County. Around 3:30 a.m. on August 5, 1993, her neighbor was preparing to leave for work and was surprised to see that Burger's garage door was open. Finding that sight unsettling, the neighbor sat in his car in front of Burger's garage. After hearing and seeing nothing for several minutes, he left for work.

About two hours later, another neighbor awoke to the smell of smoke and saw that Burger's condominium was on fire. Police officers were first on the scene, but they were unable to get far into the home because of the thick smoke. Firefighters soon arrived and quickly extinguished the fire, which was confined to an upstairs bedroom. When firefighters searched the rest of the residence, they found Burger's lifeless body facedown in a half-filled bathtub located on the first floor. Her matted hair was an unnatural yellow-orange color that was coated with a foamy soap-like substance. Fire personnel pulled her from the water and attempted to revive her, but they abandoned their efforts when it was apparent she was dead.

Police officers collecting evidence from the scene found no signs of forced entry. They discovered, however, that the condominium's smoke detectors had been removed or disabled. Burger's sister was called to the scene and informed officers that Burger's purse containing her wallet and credit cards was missing.

Later that day, Ventura County's Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Ronald O'Halloran, performed on autopsy on Burger's body. Dr. O'Halloran noted that Burger had petechial hemorrhages

on the skin of her face, her eyelids, and the whites of her eyes. She also had abrasions under her chin, bruising on her neck, and a fractured hyoid bone

. He concluded based on these observations that the cause of death was manual strangulation. Dr. O'Halloran also concluded that Burger was already dead when the fire started because there was no evidence she had inhaled smoke and no evidence of carbon monoxide in her bloodstream.

Dr. O'Halloran examined Burger's genital area and discovered three lacerations in the pubic area and bruising in the lower portion of the vagina. He concluded that Burger had been forcibly penetrated. Dr. O'Halloran swabbed and aspirated Burger's vaginal canal to recover possible seminal fluid. He then conducted a microscopic examination from one of the swabs and observed sperm. He released the swabs and vaginal aspirant to the Port Hueneme Police Department. The material was preserved for future testing.

Two weeks after the fire, an expert in fire reconstruction visited the condominium to determine the fire's point of origin, characteristics, and duration. According to the expert, the fire started when an open flame was applied to synthetic bedclothes at the foot of the bed, erupted quickly, and was rapidly extinguished. The expert concluded the fire was set intentionally.

The investigation into Burger's death went unsolved for several years. In March 1996, three years after the killing, the assistant laboratory manager at the Ventura County Sheriff's Department crime lab contracted with Orchid Cellmark Laboratories (Cellmark) to extract DNA from the vaginal aspirant (also referred to as a vaginal wash) produced by Dr. O'Halloran during the autopsy. Cellmark successfully extracted DNA from the sperm cells present in the vaginal wash and the evidence was returned to the crime lab.

Meanwhile, around the time of the killing, defendant became romantically involved with Therresa Mooney. The two broke up at one point but had resumed dating when defendant was sentenced to prison in 1996 for other crimes. Mooney visited defendant in prison regularly. Defendant's mother, Bruni Loprieato, had previously been estranged from defendant but often joined Mooney to visit defendant.

In 1999, three years into his prison sentence and six years after Burger's death, defendant was transferred to a low security fire camp. By August of that year, defendant and Mooney were engaged to be married and they expected, incorrectly, that he would be released within six months. Mooney was therefore incredulous when defendant asked her to help him escape.

Mooney testified at trial about her conversations with defendant. She stated that defendant explained to her that prison authorities soon would be taking a DNA sample from him, which might implicate him in a prior crime.

Defendant told Mooney that he and a companion were burglarizing a home when the homeowner awoke and confronted them. Defendant claimed the homeowner cut him on the forearm with a butcher knife as defendant attempted to flee, and that his companion then killed the homeowner.

Defendant feared he would be held responsible for the homeowner's death, and asked Mooney to bring a car and to meet him outside the fire camp between bed counts. He explained that he wanted Mooney to give him a ride to a bus station or airport, and that he might flee to live with a relative in Germany. Mooney refused defendant's request to help him escape, saying that he should not run from the situation because "if that's really the way it happened," defendant would not be charged.

Mooney testified that she visited defendant about one week later, this time accompanied by Loprieato. On the drive to the fire camp, Mooney told Loprieato about defendant's request for help to escape. Both women were angry and hurt, and they made clear to defendant they would not assist him in escaping. At one point during the visit, Loprieato went to the bathroom and Mooney told defendant that she loved him and was "there for [him]," but that she was skeptical of his story. Mooney asked defendant whether he had killed someone. Defendant said that he had. Prompted by a "weird feeling," Mooney asked whether the victim was a woman and whether he had raped her. Defendant again said yes. He then told Mooney that the victim's name was "Cindy Burger" and that the killing happened on August 4 or 5, 1993. He suggested that Mooney search the local newspapers for coverage of Burger's death, saying that he had set a fire during the incident and that it was covered in the news. Loprieato then returned, and the group resumed talking about defendant's plan to escape. Neither Mooney nor defendant mentioned Burger to Loprieato at that time.

Mooney stated that when she left the fire camp, she and Loprieato agreed not to tell anyone about defendant's plan to escape. Mooney did not tell law enforcement about the plan or defendant's admission regarding Burger's death because she was afraid and "wanted it to all be not true." She eventually went to a library and located a newspaper article about the killing. She brought the article with her when she visited defendant the following weekend. Mooney gave defendant the article to read. At one point, he stopped reading and said the article was wrong in stating that Burger had been wearing a nightshirt. Mooney read the rest of the article to defendant and demanded that he tell her what happened. Defendant agreed and answered Mooney's questions regarding the circumstances surrounding the rape and killing.

Mooney also testified that defendant told her that he had used a lot of methamphetamine earlier in the day and stumbled upon Burger's open garage between 2:30 and 3:00 a.m. He said he entered the garage intending to steal something, but then found a key that unlocked the door separating the garage from the residence.2 He went inside, looked around the first floor, went upstairs, found Burger nude on her bed, and raped her. When Mooney asked defendant if Burger fought back, he said, "No, actually she seemed to like it." Defendant told Mooney that at one point Burger scratched either his face or his chest. Mooney recalled that sometime around August 1993 she had seen marks on defendant's face.

Defendant answered more of Mooney's questions about the killing. Defendant explained that he had smothered Burger with a pillow and that he killed her because he was "too identifiable." He said that he placed Burger's body in the downstairs bathtub and filled it with water, bleach, and other household chemicals to "kill any DNA." Defendant told Mooney that, fearing he could be identified by DNA from hair or sperm on Burger's bed, he went back upstairs and used a candle to light the bed on fire. He also explained that before leaving the scene, he took some items to make it appear that Burger's residence had been burglarized.

After defendant had answered Mooney's questions, she mentioned that her friend knew a City of Ventura Police Department employee who, for a fee, could check to determine whether any DNA evidence had been recovered from...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT