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Amy Rica DeCHANT

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Robbery
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: July 5, 1996
Date of arrest: January 1998
Date of birth: 1948
Victim profile: Bruce Charles Weinstein, 46 (his former live-in boyfriend)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Las Vegas, Clark County, Nevada, USA
Status: Sentenced to two consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole on December 18, 1998. Sentence overturned in 2000. Pleaded guilty. Sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison on September 20, 2001
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Amy DeChant was looking for a fresh start when she moved to Las Vegas. She ran a successful cleaning company and developed a taste for poker games. That's how she met Bruce Weinstein. She and Bruce enjoyed each other's company, and eventually Amy moved in with him. The only drawback was Bruce's illegal profession: he was a bookie.

In July of 1996, Bruce disappeared. Bruce's mother discovered Amy the next morning scrubbing the carpets. First, Amy claimed Bruce had gone out and never returned. When she was questioned by police, Amy changed her story. She said mobsters had come into the house, bound and gagged her, and killed Bruce. They threatened to kill her if she told anyone. Police suspected the mafia hit was a lie, but they had no reason to hold Amy.

A month later, Bruce's body turned up in a shallow desert grave, but by then, Amy was gone. Cops picked her up in Maryland, but after posting bond, Amy disappeared again.

She was on the run for more than year when she was spotted at a nudist colony in Florida. Amy was extradited back to Nevada to stand trial for Bruce's murder. Though she insisted she had nothing to do with the crime and only fled to escape the real killers, Amy was convicted and sentenced to two life terms.

 
 

The naked & the dead: Killer Amy DeChant found in nudist camp

By David J. Krajicek - NYDailyNews.com

February 7, 2010

Friends of Bruce Weinstein couldn't decide whether Amy DeChant was the best thing ever to happen to him, or the worst.

Weinstein, a Las Vegas bookie known for his silver ponytail and vast girth, met the articulate, petite brunette at a Texas hold 'em poker table at the Mirage casino in the fall of 1995.

She batted her blue eyes and the burly Weinstein was hooked. Days later she sold her condo and moved into his new Spanish-style mini-mansion.

DeChant, 49, grew up near Perth Amboy, N.J. Twice-divorced, she moved to Las Vegas in 1992 and ran a small cleaning service.

Weinstein, a 46-year-old divorcee, was raised in the old Borscht Belt town of Liberty, N.Y. Bookmaking was his family business and his shrewd kin didn't quite know what to make of his new love.

His mother, Sylvia White, nearly fainted when Weinstein bought DeChant a diamond necklace and a turquoise Chevy Camaro weeks after they met.

To some, DeChant seemed inspired by finance, not romance.

"She loved money," a former boyfriend would later say. "All she ever used to say is, 'I want to retire. I want to retire. I want to retire.'"

On the other hand, DeChant made the moody Weinstein happy. She weaned the diabetic from his roly-poly diet and the 300-pounder began to shrink - to 290, then 275, then 260.

And then on July 5, 1996, he disappeared altogether.

DeChant claimed he went out at 11 p.m. and never came back. Weinstein's mother didn't buy it. He left behind his cell phone - a bookie's lifeline.

She arrived at her son's home early the following morning to find DeChant shampooing the carpets.

When police slow-played the investigation, White hired a private eye who found blood and a bullet hole on the flipside of Weinstein's mattress.

Detectives sprayed the carpet with Luminol, a chemical that reacts with blood and cops were able to follow the glowing blue streak of a latent blood trail from the bed to the garage, as though a body had been dragged.

Called in for a police grilling 10 days after Weinstein vanished, DeChant showed up with notes in which she laid out a new story.

This time, she said four mob hit men wearing masks and speaking New York-ese had barged into the house and murdered Weinstein. DeChant said they ordered her to clean up the mess and keep her mouth shut.

A day after giving the second account, DeChant skipped town.

Before she left, she apparently found Weinstein's cash hiding place - a hole cut in the closet wall - and cleaned it out of more than $100,000.

On Aug. 11, Weinstein's body was found covered with stones in the desert near Mesquite, Nev.

A fugitive warrant was issued for DeChant and about a month later a Maryland cop pulled her over for speeding. She flashed her groin when the cop asked for identification, offering an informal resolution to the situation.

It didn't work. The cop found $101,000 strewn about the car, along with a Passport and wigs. She was arrested and returned to Nevada - briefly.

Because DeChant had not been charged with Weinstein's murder, her bail was set at just $5,000. She paid it, then immediately fled again.

She avoided detection for more than a year. But in January 1998, her mug was the featured fugitive on an episode of the TV program "America's Most Wanted."

Police phone lines lit up. It turned out she had been hiding in plain sight - at Sunnier Palms Nudist Campground near Fort Pierce, Fla.

Cops missed her by hours, but she was tracked across the state to Port St. Lucie, where she was arrested a few days later.

In her car, authorities found research she had done on extradition treaties the United States has with other nations.

DeChant was returned to Nevada again and jailed without bail.

While she was on the lam, her former cleaning service employee, Bobby Jones, 58, had been charged as an accessory in the case for allegedly helping her dump Weinstein's body in the desert.

At trial in October 1998, prosecutors presented a convincing case, including witnesses who said DeChant was conniving to relieve Weinstein of cash.

Among those who testified was Al Leavitt, a former detective, who raised objections from the defense when he offered the opinion that DeChant's mob hit story was a "fairy tale." Prosecutor David Roger used the same phrase in his closing statement.

The jury deliberated two days before judging DeChant guilty of murder. She was sentenced to life without parole and Bobby Jones got five years.

But the "fairy tale" quip came back to haunt the prosecution. In 2000, the Nevada Supreme Court vacated the verdict, saying the comment unfairly influenced the verdict.

Rather than mount another trial, prosecutors negotiated a plea from DeChant for second-degree murder.

Weinstein's loved ones were not happy, especially when DeChant shrugged off responsibility.

"Although the mystery has not been solved, I am accepting this agreement so everyone involved can hopefully find peace and go on with their lives," she said. To his sneering mother, she added, "We both feel a tremendous loss due to Bruce's death."

DeChant was sentenced to 10 to 25 years, with credit for time served. Now 62, she was denied freedom at her first parole eligibility in 2008. But Nevada authorities say she is scheduled for release early next year.

 
 

Woman gets 25 years for killing of live-in boyfriend

DeChant eligible for parole after 6 1/2 years in prison

By Carri Geer Thevenot - Las Vegas Review-Journal

Friday, September 21, 2001

A woman was sentenced Thursday to 25 years in prison for killing her live-in boyfriend, but she will be eligible for parole after serving 10 years.

Amy DeChant, 53, pleaded guilty in July to second-degree murder after the Nevada Supreme Court overturned her first-degree murder conviction in the shooting death of Bruce Weinstein, 46.

Because of time she has served already, DeChant could be out of prison in 6 1/2 years.

At her sentencing Thursday, DeChant addressed members of the victim's family.

"We both feel a tremendous loss due to Bruce's death," she said.

Soon after DeChant met Weinstein in October 1995, she moved into his southwest Las Vegas home. He disappeared July 5, 1996, and his decomposed body was found in the desert two months later.

Prosecutors say DeChant killed Weinstein, a gambler and bookmaker, for the more than $100,000 he usually had at hand.

In the fall of 1996, DeChant was found by police in Maryland with $100,000 cash. She returned to Nevada briefly, then fled again before her September 1997 indictment.

She resurfaced in January 1998 in Florida, where she had been hiding first with a series of men and later in a nudist colony.

DeChant told police in a taped statement played during her trial that on the night her boyfriend disappeared, four men who identified themselves as "the mob" entered the house and shot Weinstein.

She said they warned her to clean up the mess and keep her mouth shut.

A jury convicted her of first-degree murder in October 1998, and she was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The state's high court overturned the conviction in October 2000. Rather than go to trial a second time, DeChant accepted a plea bargain.

She entered a type of guilty plea that required her to admit only that prosecutors could prove their case against her.

DeChant thanked District Judge John McGroarty and Chief Deputy District Attorney Edward Kane on Thursday for their sense of fair play, leniency and willingness to compromise.

"Although the mystery has not been solved, I am accepting this agreement so everyone involved can hopefully find peace and go on with their lives," DeChant said.

McGroarty followed the terms of the plea agreement in sentencing DeChant, who will receive credit for the 3 1/2 years she has been in custody.

 
 

Woman gets life in 1996 slaying of ex-boyfriend

On top of two life terms without parole, Amy DeChant gets 12 years for robbery

By Caren Benjamin - Las Vegas Review-Journal

Saturday, December 19, 1998

For the murder of bookmaker Bruce Weinstein, his former girlfriend was sentenced Friday to two consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

District Judge John McGroarty also tacked on at least another 12 years to Amy DeChant's punishment for robbing Weinstein after shooting him.

Robert Jones, the man who helped DeChant hide the crime, was sentenced to at least two years in prison. Jones has already served 14 months of that time.

DeChant, 50, met Weinstein, 46, in October 1995. He disappeared July 5, 1996, and his decomposed body was found in the desert about two months later.

DeChant skipped town, was found by police with a wad of cash in the fall of 1996, and returned to Las Vegas. At that point she was only a suspect. As police built the circumstantial case against her she again fled. She was found in January 1998 in a Florida nudist colony and returned to Nevada to face the murder charge filed in her absence.

At the nearly three-week trial, witnesses testified that she told a number of lies when Weinstein disappeared and hinted to friends before the murder that she wanted him -- but not his money -- out of her life. Weinstein was known to deal in cash and to keep substantial amounts of it around the house, according to testimony at the October trial. Police found no money in his home after he disappeared.

DeChant's story was that Weinstein was killed by mobsters angry at him for some aspect of his bookmaking and gambling business. She tried to hide what happened when he was slain because the mobsters threatened her life, DeChant's attorney, Dan Albregts, told jurors.

Jones was also charged with murder. He was an employee of DeChant's carpet cleaning business. Prosecutors claimed he supplied the gun then helped hide the evidence by cleaning up bloody carpets and disposing of the body. The jury convicted him of accessory to murder after the fact.

At the sentencing Jones asked the judge for leniency, saying he had a number of job offers and only wanted to be free and help support his family.

His attorney, Deputy Special Public Defender Lee McMahon, also asked the judge to impose probation, noting the jury essentially convicted him of cleaning the carpet. With Jones' family sobbing in the audience, McGroarty refused her request and instead imposed the maximum possible sentence.

Weinstein's mother, Sylvia White, did not push for a specific sentence. Instead she asked the judge to give her and the others in her family "peace of mind." Weinstein left behind two sisters, a brother and a young daughter in a close-knit family whose members spoke to each other nearly every day, she told the judge.

"There are family gatherings and there is a chair that is always vacant," White said.

Chief Deputy District Attorney David Roger reminded McGroarty that the state could have sought a death sentence against DeChant but chose not to. A sentence of life with the possibility of parole would send the wrong message to anyone looking at the case in the future, including appellate courts and the Pardons Board, he said.

Weinstein's murder "wasn't a result of passion. It wasn't a spur-of-the-moment situation. This was a murder based on greed. This was a woman who loved the dollar," Roger told the court.

DeChant said nothing at the sentencing on the advice of her attorney, who earlier this week asked that the verdict be thrown out and has promised to appeal.

Albregts pointed out that even a sentence of life with the possibility of parole would make DeChant eligible for release when she is 90.

 
 

Bookmaker's murder probe

Man's disappearance still causing doubt

By Bob Shemeligian - Las Vegas Sun

September 12, 1996

The investigation of the murder of local bookmaker Bruce Weinstein is focusing on two people: his former live-in girlfriend, who is in jail in Maryland, and her former business partner, who is on the lam.

Amy DeChant, 48, who was living with the 46-year-old Weinstein when he disappeared July 5 from his southwest Las Vegas home, was arrested three weeks later in Bel Air, Md., after police found more than $100,000 in cash, false birth certificates and wigs in her car.

"She is a suspect, although she has not been charged in this case," said Metro homicide Sgt. Ken Hefner. "We're continuing with our investigation."

Police also are searching for Robert Wayne Jones, 57, DeChant's business partner, who vanished July 12, five days after homicide detectives began investigating Weinstein's disappearance.

A warrant has been issued for Jones' arrest, and Weinstein's family has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to his whereabouts.

"I've come to the conclusion that if he hasn't been in touch with me by now, he has to be dead," said Jones' wife, Cheryl, a former floor supervisor at the Bourbon Street poker room, which Weinstein and DeChant frequented.

Weinstein's remains, which were discovered Aug. 11 in a makeshift grave off the Old Alamo Highway about a half mile west of State Route 168, were positively identified Wednesday.

Clark County Coroner Ron Flud has listed the case as a homicide.

Because the body was badly decomposed, it took investigators a lot of time and effort to make a positive identification.

"We had to get the dental records and do some additional work," Hefner said.

But Weinstein's family is not happy about the delay.

"We're very upset," said Sylvia White, Weinstein's mother. "We've waited and suffered an extra four weeks, and it's seemed like an eternity. If we had known earlier, we could have put a lot of this behind us."

A funeral service for Weinstein is planned at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Memory Memorial Park on Lone Mountain Road.

After the funeral, White says she will look forward to only one thing: "I hope to find justice. I want the person who has committed this crime to answer for the pain she has caused."

White makes no secret of the fact that she believes DeChant murdered her son.

"I can't tell you I'm 100 percent sure, but the police believe it, and I believe it, and no one just runs away and wears and changes her looks and her identity."

But not everyone who knew the businesswoman and former casino worker believes she is guilty.

"I just can't believe that she can do this," said Roy Seider, 53, a former poker room supervisor at the old Vegas World casino, who got to know DeChant after she worked there briefly three years ago as an extra board poker dealer.

Possibly because DeChant and Seider both are from northern New Jersey, the two immediately hit it off, and over the past three years Seider has remained one of DeChant's closest friends.

"We got to be good friends, and she was always very nice," Seider said. "She helped me out a number of times. When I was short, she'd pay for dinner. She'd loan me money, stuff like that."

DeChant last telephoned Seider from prison on Sunday.

"She said she's going to come back here and clear her name because she's innocent," Seider said.

To do so, DeChant will have to come up with answers to some very serious questions.

Investigators point out that DeChant operated a carpet cleaning business and police found blood stains in the freshly cleaned carpets of Weinstein's home after searching for clues to his disappearance.

Other sources point out that a rolled-up spare piece of carpet is believed to be missing from the garage of the home, and that DeChant changed her story about the events leading to Weinstein's disappearance before she and Jones disappeared.

"Bobby seemed as normal as pie when I last spoke with him over the telephone," said a family friend who has worked as a casino supervisor.

"The last time I spoke to him was at 9 a.m. the morning of July 12, and I think the police spoke to him at 9:45, and by noon he was gone," the friend said. "He disappeared. He left without clothing, money, even a toothbrush."

Meanwhile, Cheryl Jones said life has not been easy in the weeks since her husband's disappearance.

"I'm just taking it one day at a time," she said.

Others who knew DeChant and Jones said they'd like to believe that all this has been a bad dream.

"I would like to believe that she's innocent, and perhaps she somehow got in something over her head and got caught in the middle," Seider said.

But another acquaintance said she would like to believe DeChant is innocent but she has her doubts.

"I could never take to Amy," the casino worker said. "She's too sweet -- the type that's always smiling."

 
 

Supreme Court of Nevada

DeChant v. State

Amy Rica DeCHANT, Appellant,
v.
The STATE of Nevada, Respondent.

No. 33520.

October 19, 2000

BEFORE MAUPIN, SHEARING and BECKER, JJ.

Daniel J. Albregts, Ltd., Las Vegas, for Appellant.Frankie Sue Del Papa, Attorney General, Carson City; Stewart L. Bell, District Attorney, James Tufteland, Chief Deputy District Attorney, and Marc P. DiGiacomo, Deputy District Attorney, Clark County, for Respondent.

OPINION

SUMMARY

On the night of July 5, 1996, Bruce Charles Weinstein (“Weinstein”), an illegal bookmaker, disappeared from his Las Vegas home. Suspicious of the circumstances surrounding Weinstein's disappearance, his family hired a private investigator, Michael R. Wysocki (“Wysocki”), to determine what happened to Weinstein. Wysocki's investigative efforts focused on Weinstein's live-in love interest, Amy Rica DeChant (“DeChant”). After a week of investigation, Wysocki reported what he had learned to the police. The police then began an official investigation and interviewed DeChant. In a videotaped statement to the police, DeChant recounted that Weinstein was murdered by masked intruders who told her to clean up the evidence and to remain silent. DeChant inferred that Weinstein was killed by individuals connected with organized crime (“mob”) activities. Eventually, DeChant and one of her employees, Robert Wayne Jones (“Jones”), were indicted for the murder and robbery of Weinstein. During trial, over DeChant's objections, the State introduced testimony from a veteran police officer that DeChant's statements about Weinstein being the victim of a mob hit were not credible. This testimony was emphasized by the State during closing arguments. DeChant also attempted to subpoena Wysocki's investigative notes, but her request was denied by the district court, which concluded that the notes were privileged under Nevada law.

We conclude that the officer's testimony and the State's reference to the testimony in the State's closing argument impermissibly commented on the veracity of DeChant's statement. Moreover, the district court erred in concluding that Wysocki's notes were privileged. Because of the effect of these errors, we reverse and remand for a new trial.

FACTS

In the fall of 1995, DeChant, an operator of a successful carpet cleaning business, became romantically involved with Weinstein, an illegal bookmaker working in Las Vegas. DeChant eventually lived with Weinstein at his new home.

The following summer, the two planned a vacation for the week after the Fourth of July. On July 5, 1996, two days before the trip was to begin, Weinstein disappeared from his home. Weinstein's neighbor, Yohan Lowie (“Lowie”), testified that at 10:00 p.m. that evening, he heard three popping sounds, which he thought were fireworks left over from the Fourth of July.

The next morning, Weinstein's friends and family became alarmed when Weinstein failed to follow his normal practice of calling in to work. Silvia White, Weinstein's mother, went over to Weinstein's house in the early afternoon. Inside, she noticed that an area of the carpet was wet, smelled strongly of vinegar, and was surrounded by brown spots. When White spoke with DeChant, DeChant told her that Weinstein had left the night before with instructions that if he was not back before the vacation began, she was to leave without him and he would meet her later.

The next day, July 7, 1996, White and a family friend agreed to hire a private investigator, Wysocki, to help determine what happened to Weinstein. In the initial days of Wysocki's investigation, he focused his efforts on DeChant because several of Weinstein's acquaintances suspected DeChant. At trial, Wysocki testified that when he first asked DeChant about the night of the disappearance, she maintained her story that Weinstein had told her that he was going out and would meet her on vacation if he did not come back in time.

Then on Thursday, July 11, 1996, when DeChant spoke with Wysocki again, Wysocki testified that DeChant told him that she was planning to leave the country and that she had done research about which countries would not extradite her. However, on cross-examination, Wysocki was unsure of whether he or DeChant first brought up the topic of extradition.

On Friday, July 12, 1996, DeChant had another conversation with Wysocki, and Wysocki testified that DeChant told him a new version of the events surrounding Weinstein's disappearance. According to Wysocki, DeChant said that she was at home the night of July 5th when four masked intruders came in, took Weinstein upstairs, beat him up, shot him, and then took his body out of the house. The intruders then told DeChant, whom they had put in a downstairs room during the shooting, to clean up the mess and that if anyone ever asked her what happened, she should tell them that Weinstein had gone out but did not say where he was going. These intruders also told DeChant that they were watching her and would kill her if they found out that she had told anyone what really happened.

The next day, DeChant gave a taped interview to homicide detectives where she repeated her story about the masked intruders. In this interview, DeChant also stated that she had received a call from the intruders several days after the murder reminding DeChant that they were watching her. Because of Weinstein's illegal bookmaking activities, DeChant's statement implied that Weinstein was killed by organized crime figures, i.e., “the mob.”

Homicide detectives now began an exhaustive search of Weinstein's Las Vegas home, DeChant's car, Weinstein's car, and the truck DeChant used for the cleaning business. The police also investigated the relationship between DeChant and her employee Jones, and the possible involvement of Jones in Weinstein's disappearance. The investigation uncovered a blood trail from the master bedroom, down the stairs, and into the foyer area. However, no murder weapon, shell casings, or bullet holes were ever found at the scene. Further, no blood stains or carpet fibers were found in any of the vehicles. Finally, detectives searched a safety deposit box that DeChant had opened at a Las Vegas hotel where they found $35,000.00 in sports book chips and a bag of jewelry.

In August of 1996, Weinstein's body was found in a remote area outside of Las Vegas. A .38 caliber bullet was found inside the body and determined to be the cause of death, but ballistic tests could not be performed because of the condition of the bullet. Later, a .38 caliber gun was found in a desert area outside of Vegas that was traced to Mathew Hunt (“Hunt”), a friend of Jones's son. Hunt testified that he had traded the gun to Jones's son.

On September 12, 1997, DeChant and Jones were both indicted for conspiracy to commit robbery and/or murder, murder with the use of a deadly weapon, robbery with the use of a deadly weapon, and accessory to murder.

Prior to trial, a hearing was held concerning DeChant's subpoena duces tecum for Wysocki's notes and billing records regarding his investigation. In that hearing, the State took no position. Instead Wysocki was represented by independent counsel who argued that Wysocki was not permitted to divulge the information. Wysocki's argument was based on NRS 648.200, which forbids private investigators from divulging information acquired, except at the request of the client or as “required by law.” The district court concluded that the statute created a privilege that Wysocki could invoke, and thus the district court did not have the discretion to order the disclosure of Wysocki's raw notes.

At trial, Wysocki claimed that all the information he had in his notes was included in a ninety-eight-page report that was prepared after a police interview. Further, Wysocki stated that if he had had anything to add to the report, he would have just informed the police verbally without preparing any additional writings.

During trial, the State sought to introduce the testimony of Alfred Leavitt (“Leavitt”), a former Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department detective with thirty years of experience in investigating homicides, including some involving organized crime. The State had previously asked Leavitt to review DeChant's videotaped police statement, which was shown at trial, and to form an opinion as to whether DeChant's statements regarding a mob hit were credible.

DeChant objected to Leavitt's testimony on the grounds that it impermissibly commented on the veracity of DeChant's statement. At a hearing outside the presence of the jury, the State acknowledged that it was not introducing Leavitt as an expert witness on the characteristics of organized crime murders. Instead, the State indicated that it wanted to draw on Leavitt's personal experiences with organized crime murders to support Leavitt's opinions about the credibility of DeChant's statements. The State argued that:

Based on that experience and that included some 30 years as a police officer and hundreds of such investigations, he examined the statement given by Ms. DeChant to the police and pointed out several particulars in which her version of what happened was not credible as involving a mob hit ․

The district court denied the objection and permitted Leavitt's testimony.

At trial, Leavitt testified that he had reviewed and evaluated DeChant's statement and found several inconsistencies. First, Leavitt highlighted DeChant's claim that the “mob” committed the crime while DeChant was at home and commented that when the “mob” killed somebody they did not leave witnesses. Leavitt explained that if this were a “mob hit,” the “mob” would have waited for Weinstein to be alone or would have killed DeChant as well. Further, after reiterating DeChant's claim that the “mob” contacted her later, Leavitt testified that he had never experienced a case where the “mob” would call a witness to remind her that she was being watched. Leavitt also testified that DeChant's claim that Weinstein's body was removed from the scene was inconsistent with his experience because the “mob” would have left the body. Finally, Leavitt commented generally that nothing about DeChant's statement fit with his experience.

In addition, although the district court instructed Leavitt not to give his personal opinions as to the veracity of DeChant's statement, Leavitt commented that DeChant's story was a “fairy tale” and that he did not believe it for one second. Leavitt further stated that he did not believe that portion of DeChant's statement claiming that she received a phone call from the intruders.

The district court sustained DeChant's objection to these statements and ordered some of the testimony stricken. The district court also instructed the jury to disregard Leavitt's opinions about DeChant's veracity. However, during closing argument, the prosecutor repeated Leavitt's description of DeChant's story as a “fairy tale,” and used Leavitt's testimony as a basis for inferring that DeChant was a liar.

At the conclusion of the trial, DeChant was convicted and sentenced for first-degree murder with the use of a deadly weapon and robbery with the use of a deadly weapon.

DISCUSSION

Leavitt's testimony and the prosecutor's comments regarding DeChant's veracity

DeChant first contends that the district court erred in allowing Leavitt to testify at trial because his testimony impermissibly stated an opinion concerning DeChant's truthfulness and the State improperly used it to infer DeChant's guilt.1 We agree that this testimony and the prosecutor's comments during closing, constituted an impermissible comment on the veracity of DeChant's statement.

Initially, we note that there is some dispute with respect to whether Leavitt's testimony was expert or lay opinion. The record reveals that the district court allowed Leavitt's testimony as lay opinion, despite the fact that the testimony essentially consisted of specialized knowledge obtained through experience as a police detective. Accordingly, we will treat Leavitt as a lay witness. See Johnson v. Egtedar, 112 Nev. 428, 436, 915 P.2d 271, 276 (1996) (“The scope of a witness' testimony and whether a witness will be permitted to testify as an expert witness are within the discretion of the trial court, and the trial court's ruling will not be disturbed unless there is an abuse of discretion.”).

In general, “it is exclusively within the province of the trier of fact to weigh evidence and pass on the credibility of witnesses and their testimony.” Lay v. State, 110 Nev. 1189, 1192, 886 P.2d 448, 450 (1994). Thus, a lay witness's opinion concerning the veracity of the statement of another is inadmissible. See Sterling v. State, 108 Nev. 391, 397, 834 P.2d 400, 404 (1992) (“Lay opinion about the veracity of particular statements by another is inadmissible on that issue.”) (quoting People v. Melton, 44 Cal.3d 713, 244 Cal.Rptr. 867, 750 P.2d 741, 758 (1988)).2

In this case, the State did not question Leavitt solely about his experience with organized crime murders and then have him testify, based upon that experience, that mob contract murders have particular characteristics. In fact, the State conceded it was not proposing to qualify Leavitt as an expert for that purpose. Instead, the State asked Leavitt to review DeChant's statement and to form “an opinion as to whether or not Ms. DeChant's story of a mob hit was credible.”3

Leavitt's testimony about his experiences with organized crime continuously referenced DeChant's contrary claims and had the ultimate effect of impermissibly attacking the veracity of DeChant's statement and the heart of her defense. Moreover, Leavitt made several comments directly stating his opinion of DeChant's statement. For instance, Leavitt commented that DeChant's claim that the mob committed the murder with DeChant at home was a “fairy tale” and that he did not believe it for a second. Further, when asked about DeChant's claim that she was later contacted by a mob individual warning her to keep silent, Leavitt stated “I don't believe that either.”

Finally, the prosecutor adopted Leavitt's language during closing argument and concluded that DeChant's story was “a fairy tale that was made up in her mind.” Additionally, there were several other instances during the State's closing argument when the prosecutor argued that DeChant's story was a “sham” based upon the Leavitt testimony. The prosecution's combined comments served to highlight and re-emphasize Leavitt's opinion of DeChant's credibility, undermining the curative effect of the limiting instruction.

We conclude that the district court erred in permitting Leavitt's testimony. Moreover, given the crucial nature of Leavitt's testimony and the prosecutor's paraphrasing of Leavitt's opinion during closing, we cannot say that the error was harmless.

The district court's quashing of DeChant's subpoena duces tecum requesting Wysocki's notes

DeChant further contends that the district court erred when it held that it did not have discretion to compel disclosure of Wysocki's notes that he prepared during the initial days of his investigation. Specifically, DeChant argues that the district court misconstrued NRS 648.200, which the district court concluded created a privilege in private investigators that prevented it from ordering Wysocki to disclose his notes.

In relevant part, NRS 648.200 states:

It is unlawful for any licensee or any employee, security guard, officer or member of any licensee:

1. To divulge to anyone, except as he may be so required by law to do, any information acquired by him except at the direction of the employer or client for whom the information was obtained.

(Emphasis added.)

Although we have not previously interpreted the scope of NRS 648.200, two other states have dealt with identical statutes. See Attorney General v. Pelletier, 240 Mass. 264, 134 N.E. 407, 418 (1922); People v. Roach, 215 N.Y. 592, 109 N.E. 618, 624 (1915). Both Pelletier and Roach conclude that such a statute affords no privilege to an investigator or employee summoned as a witness in court to give testimony as to facts concerning an issue under investigation. Further, the Massachusetts court noted that “[t]he statute was not intended to hamper the administration of justice but simply to provide for the licensing and regulation of private detectives and to protect them ․ from faithless employees.” Pelletier, 134 N.E. at 418-19.

We conclude that the “except as he may be so required by law to do” language of the statute and the compelling reasoning in Pelletier and Roach indicate that a district court does have discretion to compel disclosure of documents in possession of a private investigator that are relevant to trial and not covered by any other privilege. Accordingly, the district court erred in quashing DeChant's subpoena duces tecum based upon the provisions of NRS 648.200.

Whether the cumulative error was prejudicial

Although we have concluded that the admission of Leavitt's testimony alone would warrant reversal, we have also analyzed the cumulative effect of the errors at trial.

We have stated that if the cumulative effect of errors committed at trial denies the appellant his right to a fair trial, this court will reverse the conviction. See Big Pond v. State, 101 Nev. 1, 3, 692 P.2d 1288, 1289 (1985). Relevant factors to consider in deciding whether error is harmless or prejudicial include whether “the issue of innocence or guilt is close, the quantity and character of the error, and the gravity of the crime charged.” Id.

In this case, we first note that the evidence was largely circumstantial, with inferences of guilt being drawn principally from DeChant's actions after Weinstein's murder. We also note the gravity of the first-degree murder and robbery charges upon which DeChant was convicted.

More importantly, Leavitt's testimony was extremely prejudicial as it directly undermined DeChant's version of facts and was stated by a witness whom the State portrayed as a highly experienced person with specialized knowledge. Finally, Leavitt's expertise, and his opinions about DeChant's credibility, were impermissibly referenced by the prosecution during closing argument.

Further, we conclude that the district court's error in not compelling disclosure of Wysocki's investigative notes was also of a prejudicial nature as Wysocki was a critical witness for the State regarding DeChant's conduct during the first week of Weinstein's disappearance. Thus, his notes were relevant to an effective cross-examination by DeChant. Although Wysocki testified that all his notes were reduced to the ninety-eight-page police report, he also testified to his lucrative financial arrangement and increasingly close relationship with the Weinsteins. DeChant cannot be required to rely upon Wysocki's statements in this regard.

We conclude that even if the admission of Leavitt's testimony could be considered harmless error, the cumulative effect of the errors at trial denied DeChant her right to a fair trial and mandates reversal.

CONCLUSION

We first conclude that Leavitt's testimony regarding the veracity of DeChant's story and the State's comments during closing argument were reversible error. Next, we conclude that the district court erred in its interpretation of NRS 648.200, which prevented DeChant from obtaining Wysocki's investigative notes. Although the district court's admission of Leavitt's testimony was reversible error, we also conclude that the cumulative effect of the errors at trial was prejudicial. Therefore, we reverse and remand the case to the district court for a new trial.4

FOOTNOTES

1.   DeChant also contends that the district court erred in denying her motion to sever and that there was insufficient evidence to support her convictions. Because we reverse this matter on other grounds, we need not reach DeChant's contention respecting the motion to sever. We further conclude, however, that sufficient evidence was presented to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt as determined by a rational trier of fact.

2.   Initially, the State argues that this case law does not apply because it involves only opinions regarding another witness's testimony. Thus, the State claims that because DeChant never took the stand and Leavitt offered an opinion only of her out-of-court statement, which was introduced at trial, the case law should not apply. However, we conclude that this “testimony” versus “statement” distinction is, in this case, a distinction without a difference. As noted above, the underlying purpose for the inadmissibility of opinion evidence regarding the truthfulness of another's statement is to prevent a witness from invading the jury's function of being the sole authority in weighing the evidence and determining the ultimate facts in a case. See Townsend v. State, 103 Nev. 113, 117, 734 P.2d 705, 709 (1987) (it is the prerogative of the jury to make unassisted factual determinations). This purpose is equally important where the offending witness comments on the credibility of a defendant's statement, which embodies the defendant's version of facts. Therefore, we conclude the State's argument lacks merit.

3.   We note that even if Leavitt were qualified as an expert, our conclusion would not change as similar testimonial boundaries exist for experts. See Lickey v. State, 108 Nev. 191, 196, 827 P.2d 824, 827 (1992) (“An expert may not comment on the veracity of a witness.”) (citing Townsend v. State, 103 Nev. 113, 118-19, 734 P.2d 705, 708-09 (1987)).

4.   Nothing in this opinion is intended to prohibit the State from attempting to introduce testimony from an individual with expertise in the patterns, if any, surrounding organized crime murders. Assuming such testimony was properly admitted, the State would also be free to argue that DeChant's version of the events does not follow the pattern of a mob contract murder.

PER CURIAM

 

 

 
 
 
 
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