Erends gets life without the possibility of
By Eric Laughlin, The Press Tribune
February 10. 2010
The Roseville woman convicted last month of
brutally murdering her friend with a wallpaper scraper will spend the
rest of her life behind bars.
Stephanie Nicole Erends, 26, was formally sentenced
to life without the possibility of parole Wednesday, following an
emotional statement delivered by the mother of 24-year-old victim
While trying to hold back tears and holding a large
photograph of her daughter, Alicia Martens told Erends she will never
forgive her for killing and mutilating the person she loved so much.
“I wish you would have just cut your own throat and
left Alicia alone,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned you’re like
cancer Stephanie, like AIDS, you just spread ugliness wherever you go.
You must die Stephanie. And I don’t care how, just die.”
In December Erends was convicted by a jury of
first-degree murder with special circumstances that included lying in
wait and use of a deadly weapon.
On March 8, 2008, she drove Ernst to a remote field
off Old Walerga Road, got in the back seat, and surprised Ernst by
slicing her neck and face while she sat buckled in the passenger’s
Erends then tried to cut off Ernst’s fingers to
keep her from being identified, poured ammonia on her body and then
covered her with trash after dumping her body nearby.
During the trial, Erends admitted to slashing
Ernst’s throat, but claimed it was a heat of passion killing that
resulted from a scuffle in the vehicle. Erends said the women had been
at odds following an incident in which Ernst humiliated her in front
of Ernst’s boyfriend.
The jury didn’t buy her testimony, however, and
found her guilty of lying in wait.
Following the statement by Ernst’s mother, Erends’
grandmother Janet Cross addressed the court in an aggressive tone that
drew several gasps from Ernst’s family members.
“It could’ve been the other way around as far as
I’m concerned,” Cross said. “The drugs did this. If they hadn’t been
doing drugs, this would’ve never happened.”
Cross then expressed frustration that the jury was
not able to hear how her granddaughter made the Dean’s List prior to
Erends’ mother Karen also spoke briefly, and like
Cross, claimed her daughter did not plan the murder. She spoke with
reporters after the hearing.
“This just goes to show how things can happen,” she
said. “I feel sad for the other family, but we both lost our
daughters. One’s dead and one’s still dying inside.”
Another confrontational moment during the hearing
was when Erends told prosecutor Garen Horst to “shut up” while he was
detailing the horrid crime prior to sentencing.
Judge Colleen Nichols scolded the convicted killer
and she stayed silent thereafter.
Erends will now be transported to a state
correctional facility to begin her life sentence.
Erends guilty of first-degree murder
By Nathan Donato-Weinstein - AuburnJournal.com
December 9, 2009
Roseville – Whether or not Stephanie Nicole Erends
killed her friend was never in doubt.
The question was: Did she plan it?
On Wednesday, jurors issued their answer.
After two days of deliberations, eight women and
four men told a judge that Erends, 26, is guilty of first-degree
murder for the killing of her friend, 24-year-old Alicia Ernst. And
they found her guilty of a special allegation alleging Erends was
lying in wait when she slashed Ernst’s throat.
“Justice,” said Alicia Martens, Ernst’s mother,
outside the courtroom. “It doesn’t bring my precious baby back, but
Prosecutors said Erends drove Ernst to a remote
road off Old Walerga Road just outside Roseville on March 8, 2008.
That’s where they charged she attacked Ernst with a wallpaper scraper.
After initially denying involvement, Erends told
police in a confession that she planned the crime after Ernst
allegedly poured acid down her throat several months earlier,
Prosecutors also said Erends had long been jealous
of her friend, and that jealousy was strengthened after she believed
that Ernst had slept with her boyfriend.
But Erends changed her tune, and earlier this month
told a jury she “just snapped” during a fight – and never plotted the
murder. She said she originally confessed to get police off her back.
This week, a jury of eight women and four men
weren’t buying it.
“I felt the evidence corroborated her initial
confession,” said jury foreman Edward Millett.
Millett said he wasn’t swayed by Erends’ decision
to take the stand.
“Her testimony was such that she mumbled – she was
hard to understand,” he said, adding that she had months to think
about a new story.
Juror Ellen Lersch said if the killing was
spontaneous, Erends should have had more defense wounds from a
resisting Alica. But that wasn’t the case, suggesting Erends got the
element of surprise.
And Erends’ reversal didn’t pass the smell test,
“Most people, when they confess, they do tell the
truth,” she said.
Erends sat motionless with tears streaming down her
cheeks as the verdict was read.
Afterward, Brandon Ernst, Alicia’s brother, said
the process was grueling.
“She should have pleaded guilty,” Brandon Ernst
said, wearing a button with Alica’s face.
“It’s the next part of grieving my sister’s loss,”
he said of the guilty verdict.
Jonathan Richter, Erends’ defense attorney,
declined to comment outside the courtroom.
“I’m appreciative the jury arrived at an
appropriate decision,” prosecutor Garen Horst said.
Erends faces life in prison without parole.
Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty.
Her sentencing is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Feb. 10.
Accused killer Stephanie Erends takes stand
By Nathan Donato-Weinstein - AuburnJournal.com
November 30, 2009
Accused killer Stephanie Nicole Erends on Monday
said her victim trash-talked her – saying she slept with “a whole
bunch of people” and looked “foul” when having sex.
It was her simmering rage at those remarks – and
not a methodical pre-planned scheme – that led Erends to slash Alicia
Ernst’s throat on the outskirts of Roseville on March 8, 2008, she
“I didn’t know why she was treating me that way,”
Erends, 26, said. “It was just the fact she was supposed to be my
friend. Heck, it was my birthday.”
The claim came during testimony in which Erends,
dressed in a cream sweater and ankle-length black skirt, took the
stand to offer a different take on how the gruesome killing went down.
Prosecutors have charged her with first-degree
murder with a special allegation of lying in wait, based partly on
Erends’ own extensive conversations with investigators.
But on Monday, Erends said her confession of
planning the killing moths prior was a lie in order to get police off
her back. In that version of events, Erends said she plotted to kill
Ernst, 24, after Ernst poured acid down her throat.
Erends could face a lessened sentence if jurors
find she didn’t plan the killing in advance.
In Monday’s daylong testimony, Erends rarely looked
up and in hushed tones discussed her drug-filled childhood and what
she said happened on that fateful night.
The two longtime friends had been getting high at a
friend’s house the night of March 7 when Ernst made the comments about
Erends’ body and sexual habits, Erends said.
In the early morning, the two left in Erends’ car.
Erends drove to the spot – a drinking hangout – to delay going home
until her grandmother, whom she was living with, left for work, she
That’s when Erends brought up Ernst’s comments,
“She just tried to laugh it off and said it was
funny,” Erends said.
Enraged, Erends said she backhanded her.
“She never suspected I would do it. We just started
Eventually, Erends said she reached for a wallpaper
tool that she had bought for work.
“I don’t know what I was thinking. I knew I wanted
to hurt her,” she said.
“Then what?” Jonathan Richter, her defense
“I was pressing it down on her. She was trying to
get me off. She was yelling at me,” Erends said.
Erends said the two of them stumbled out the
passenger’s side door.
“At some point did Alicia stop struggling?” Richter
“Yes,” Erends answered.
“Afterward, what was going through your mind?”
“I was panicked. Kind of shocked. I remember
realizing someone was going to get severely hurt during all that.”
**Remorse asserted, motives questioned**
Richter spent much of the day establishing Erends’
remorse. In numerous prison letters to pen pals, Erends wrote of
suicidal thoughts and seeking forgiveness.
But prosecutor Garen Horst tore into Erends’ story,
questioning her motive for changing it.
“You’re coming up with this version of events for a
lesser sentence, aren’t you?” he asked.
Erends replied “no,” but Horst produced letters to
pen pals showing it was only after Erends learned she wouldn’t be
eligible for conjugal visits if she received life in prison that she
decided to “put up a little bit of a fight,” as she wrote.
And he asked why jurors should believe her now
after she admitted to lying in her original story to police.
Moreover, Horst suggested Erends’ story of
confessing to planning the killing because she wanted police off her
back just didn’t hold up. After all, she could have told them her
current story just as easily, he said.
Erends' trial is expected to last through
Court of Appeals of California, Third District, Placer.
PEOPLE v. ERENDS
THE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent,
STEPHANIE NICOLE ERENDS, Defendant and Appellant.
Filed June 16, 2011.
Following a jury trial, defendant Stephanie Nicole
Erends was convicted of first degree murder (Pen. Code, § 187) with a
lying-in-wait special circumstance (id., § 190.2, subd. (a)(15)) and a
deadly weapon enhancement (id., § 12022, subd. (b)(1)). The trial
court initially sentenced defendant to a state prison term of 25 years
to life plus one year, later correcting the sentence to life without
the possibility of parole plus one year.
On appeal, defendant contends there was
instructional error on provocation and improper opinion testimony from
the investigating officer on the veracity of defendant's confession.
We shall affirm the judgment.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Defendant and Alicia Ernst had been friends since
high school. On March 7, 2008, it was defendant's 25th birthday.
Defendant left home around 8:15 p.m. to celebrate with Ernst. Ernst
and defendant visited Ernst's boyfriend, Richard Hamman, around
midnight, leaving at 4:00 a.m.
Ernst's body was discovered by a Placer County road
maintenance worker off Old Walerga Road near Baseline Road on March
10, 2008. Her body was covered with trash, and an empty ammonia bottle
was at the scene. There was no insect activity on Ernst's body, which
was consistent with ammonia being poured over the body. The ammonia
bottle tested positive for blood. Also found at the scene was a white
plastic trash bag containing fresh blood, gloves saturated with blood,
a knife-like device with a four-inch blade and a triangle-shaped area
where the handle was broken off.
The Placer County forensic pathologist determined
Ernst died in the early morning hours of March 8, 2008. She sustained
various sharp-force injuries to the head and face, but the cause of
death was multiple sharp-force wounds to the neck. The neck wounds
were from the left to the right, and were consistent with having come
from a single-edged razor type of tool. There were also postmortem
wounds on Ernst's fingers that were consistent with someone trying to
shave off her fingerprints.
Ernst sustained limited defensive wounds. More
defensive wounds would be expected if she had been attacked from the
side or front, and her other wounds were consistent with an attack
from the rear. However, the pathologist could not conclusively
determine the direction of the attack unless he was present during the
Around 5:00 a.m. on March 8, 2008, defendant
knocked on the door of Michelle and Paul White's house. Defendant, who
had blood all over her hands, told the Whites that three men attacked
her when her car broke down. She did not want law enforcement called,
but asked to call her grandmother. Paul White later drove defendant to
her grandmother's house.
Michael Smith responded to a tow service call on
Old Walerga Road on March 8, 2008, at around 7:30 a.m. Defendant was
there with her grandmother; the car was tangled in barbed wire and
under an oak tree. Defendant said she and her girlfriend were run off
the road by another vehicle. This did not make sense to Smith given
the placement of defendant's car. Smith noticed blood on the driver's
side door as well as between the seat and center console.
Defendant was contacted by Placer County Sheriff's
Detective Christina Woo at around 9:10 p.m. on March 10, 2008.
Defendant told Detective Woo she went to a bar with Ernst on March 7,
her birthday. Ernst did not want to leave the bar, so defendant left
Ernst and went to other bars by herself. She went home for awhile
before going to a friend's house, where defendant left around 3:00
a.m., and was run off the road around 4:00 a.m. Defendant went to
three to four houses looking for a ride before the Whites opened their
door to her.
Defendant took Detective Woo and Detective Don
Murchison to the bars she allegedly visited, and to where her car got
stuck. She claimed another car ran her off the road, and a man came up
and grabbed her by the neck. He later "slipped away" when another car
Told that Ernst's body was found in the same area,
defendant suggested it was a coincidence. She then denied killing
Ernst and demanded to be taken home. The detectives took defendant
home and arrested her after seeing her car.
Detectives Murchison and Woo interrogated defendant
at the Placer County Jail at 9:57 p.m. on March 11. After being read
her Miranda1 rights, defendant said she wanted "to confess to killing
Alicia Ernst," and admitted slitting Ernst's throat with a "single
Defendant told the detectives she picked up Ernst
and they did some methamphetamine at Hamman's house, leaving at around
3:30 a.m. Instead of going home, defendant drove Ernst to the frontage
road. While Ernst was sitting in the front passenger seat, defendant
got in the back seat and said she was going to change her pants.
Defendant took a knife she had already placed in the back seat, and
used it to slit Ernst's throat. She then pulled Ernst out of the car
and cut off her fingerprints as much as she could. Once outside the
car, defendant poured ammonia over Ernst's body and covered it with
garbage. Defendant started to leave, but panicked and drove her car
into a bush. She later convinced Paul White to drive her home.
Defendant admitted buying the ammonia and the blade
several weeks before, intending to use them on Ernst. Defendant wanted
to kill Ernst for allegedly pouring "acid" down her throat while she
was sleeping six to seven months before the killing.
Defendant admitted her earlier story was false. She
later helped the detectives find the ammonia bottle and the weapon.
Detective Murchison testified that he thought
defendant held back some information in her confession. Although
defendant claimed she had not been to the murder scene before she
killed Ernst, defendant's boyfriend told Detective Murchison that he
and defendant had been to the area before. He also could not confirm
whether Ernst poured acid down defendant's throat. However, Detective
Murchison believed most of the confession was corroborated by
extrinsic evidence, such as bloodstains in defendant's car.
A search of defendant's car found red stains on
both the driver-and passenger-side doors, along with gouges and
scratches on the roof and hood. There was blood on the steering wheel
and the interior of the car, including extensive saturated bloodstains
in the lower left quadrant of the passenger's seat, and two shoe
prints were on the interior windshield.
Defendant's boyfriend, Alexander Kapustin, was
arrested on an outstanding warrant when he tried to visit defendant in
jail. Kapustin had a newspaper clipping on defendant's case, along
with a note that he intended to pass to defendant. The note read,
"Tell me you don't [sic] do that because you still think I was
mess—mess around with her." Kapustin testified that he fought with
defendant about whether he slept with Ernst, which he denied.
Hamman testified that defendant and Ernst knocked
on his door on the night of March 7, 2008. Hamman was dating Ernst at
the time, and once dated defendant. Defendant and Ernst asked Hamman
if he had any drugs. Hamman said "No," and they left after 30 minutes.
Ernst and defendant returned at around 1:30 or 2:00 a.m. with
methamphetamine, which they smoked in Hamman's garage.
Ernst and defendant teased and flirted with each
other; at one point defendant got on Ernst's lap. Later, the three
watched an adult movie, after which Ernst and Hamman went to the
shower where they had sex. Ernst told defendant she watched her have
sex with other men when they lived together. Defendant's demeanor did
not change after Ernst said this. Ernst and defendant left at 4:00
Defendant testified that she had been friends with
Ernst since they were 13. On the night of the incident, defendant and
Ernst went out to celebrate defendant's birthday. After buying some
gas and beers, they went to Hamman's to buy some drugs. Hamman did not
have any drugs, but they hung out for awhile before driving to see one
of Ernst's friends, from whom Ernst bought methamphetamine. They
stayed at the friend's house for a few hours and smoked
The pair then returned to Hamman's house, were they
hung out for a few hours and smoked methamphetamine. The three watched
an adult video; at some point Ernst and Hamman took a shower. Ernst
started making rude remarks about defendant and pulled down one of
defendant's pant legs, exposing her underwear. Ernst said she had seen
defendant have sex with other people before; defendant looked foul
doing so, and slept with a lot of other people. This made defendant
"feel like crap," as it was defendant's birthday and Ernst was
supposed to be her friend. Ernst kept insulting defendant even after
defendant told her to stop.
Defendant then said she needed to get her keys from
her grandmother, and Ernst suggested she go with defendant. Ernst
seemed to feel bad for what she said, so defendant let Ernst come with
her. Since she was high, defendant did not want to get home until her
grandmother left for work, and she drove to an isolated spot on Old
Walerga Road to wait for about 20 minutes. Defendant asked Ernst why
she treated her that way; Ernst tried to laugh it off and thought it
was funny, which made defendant feel dirty. Defendant told her to
"shut up" and hit Ernst in the face.
Ernst got mad, and they started to fight. Defendant
pulled Ernst's sweatshirt hood over Ernst's head, reached into a
storage area of the driver's seat, grabbed a scraper, and pressed it
onto Ernst. Ernst's feet were over the dash as they struggled. Ernst
tried to get defendant off of her, and they fell out the
Ernst stopped struggling at some point. Defendant
slid the scraper across Ernst's fingers, got ammonia from the back
seat, and poured the ammonia over Ernst's body. She put her gloves and
the scraper into a plastic bag. Defendant put garbage on top of
Ernst's body and tried to leave, but got stuck.
Defendant testified that when the detectives first
spoke to her, they questioned her about being attacked so she went
along with the story even though it was not true. Her confession was
false; she felt like she was blaming Ernst if she told the deputies
the truth, and defendant originally felt she deserved the death
Defendant claimed she kept the ammonia, trash bags,
and rubber gloves in her car because she cleaned houses once a month.
She purchased the scraper from Home Depot to scrape lettering off a
door at her work. Defendant admitted arguing with Kapustin about
sleeping with an Alicia, but later determined it was a different woman
Ellen Kuykendall, a close friend of defendant's
grandmother, testified that defendant cleaned her house at times and
would bring ammonia and gloves. According to a coworker of
defendant's, their workplace purchased a new door and employees
removed the door's old lettering. She admitted there were tools
on-site for the task and did not recall a shaver being used.
According to forensic psychologist Dr. Ari
Kalechstein, defendant suffered from methamphetamine addiction and a
major depressive disorder at the time of the incident, and was
suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Giving a
different version of a traumatic event a few days after the event was
consistent with PTSD, and the person's ability to recall or be aware
of their surroundings and what transpired is affected.
On rebuttal, Detective Murchison testified that
defendant's failure to admit certain facts did not cause him to
question her confession. Holding back or not admitting information can
happen during questioning. Murchison had been trained to look at the
totality of the evidence when evaluating the veracity of a confession.
There were no injuries on defendant's face consistent with defendant's
testimony that Ernst grabbed her face with both hands. Also,
defendant's testimony regarding a struggle outside the car was
inconsistent with the staining found inside defendant's car.
Defendant's testimony had not changed his belief that her confession
I. The Provocation Instruction
Defendant contends the trial court prejudicially
erred in failing to give a requested clarifying instruction on
provocation. We disagree.
The trial court instructed the jury with the
standard instruction on voluntary manslaughter, CALCRIM No. 570, which
reads, in pertinent part: "A killing that would otherwise be murder is
reduced to voluntary manslaughter if the defendant killed someone
because of a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion." CALCRIM No.
570 further states, "It is not enough that the defendant was simply
provoked. The defendant is not allowed to set up her own standard of
conduct. In deciding whether the provocation was sufficient, consider
whether a person of average disposition in the same situation and
knowing the same facts, would have reacted from passion rather than
Before and after the trial, defense counsel asked
the court to modify CALCRIM No. 570, based on the Bench Notes to
CALCRIM No. 570 and People v. Najera (2006) 138 Cal.App.4th 212
(Najera), to include language that the sufficient provocation for
manslaughter is not to kill but merely to act rashly and without
deliberation. Asked how he would change the instruction, defense
counsel stated, "I would just add that line that they put in the use
notes, that an average person need not be provoked to kill, but merely
to act [rashly] and without deliberation." The trial court rejected
the suggested modification and instructed the jury with the unmodified
CALCRIM No. 570 (Dec. 2008 rev.).
Defendant relies on the Authority subheading to
CALCRIM No. 570, which states: "`Average person' Need Not Have Been
Provoked to Kill, Just to Act Rashly and Without Deliberation. People
v. Najera (2006) 138 Cal.App.4th 212, 223." (Judicial Council of Cal.
Crim. Jury Instns. (2011) Authority to CALCRIM No. 570, p. 354.)
Admitting CALCRIM No. 570 "may be adequate for most cases generally,"
defendant asserts "the instruction's focus is misleading in regard to
the concept of provocation which is not directly related to killing
but to the loss of objectively normal mental control of an average
person." Since "provocation `to kill'" was not the main part of the
defense, defendant argues it "was critical that the jurors understood
that the provocation had only to be sufficient to arouse that heat of
passion mental state to a level where the action of an ordinary person
would be from passion rather than reason."
During argument on the motion at trial, the
prosecutor sought clarification, stating that his understanding of
defense counsel's position was that based on statements from Ernst in
the car, coupled with the fight, there "was sufficient provocation for
[defendant] to then grab the razor and kill her[.]" Defense counsel
replied, "No. It's sufficient provocation for her to act rationally
from passion. That's why I want the language, because even you are
misreading what it says." Defendant contends this exchange shows the
modified instruction was necessary to prevent the jury from believing
defendant had to have been provoked to kill before finding sufficient
provocation for voluntary manslaughter.
When a defendant contends an instruction is
ambiguous or potentially misleading, we must review the instructions
as a whole and determine "`whether there is a reasonable likelihood
that the jury has applied the challenged instruction in a way' that
violates the [United States] Constitution." (Estelle v. McGuire (1991)
502 U.S. 62, 72 [116 L.Ed.2d 385, 399]; see also People v. Smithey
(1999) 20 Cal.4th 936, 963.)
"`[H]eat of passion'" voluntary manslaughter
requires proof of provocation and heat of passion. (People v. Lee
(1999) 20 Cal.4th 47, 59.) The provocation must be caused (or
reasonably believed by the defendant to have been caused) by the
victim, and must be "sufficiently provocative that it would cause an
ordinary person of average disposition to act rashly or without due
deliberation and reflection." (Ibid.) If an "ordinarily reasonable
person," so provoked, would have acted in this manner, there is
legally sufficient heat of passion to reduce murder to voluntary
Najera addressed a prosecutor's closing arguments
containing numerous incorrect statements of the law regarding
voluntary manslaughter. (Najera, supra, 138 Cal.App.4th at pp.
219-224.) Among the erroneous arguments were the comments, "`Would a
reasonable person do what the defendant did?'" and "`[T]he reasonable,
prudent person standard . . . [is] based on conduct, what a reasonable
person would do in a similar circumstance.'" (Id. at p. 223, italics
omitted.) Such statements were incorrect because "[t]he focus is on
the provocation—the surrounding circumstances—and whether it was
sufficient to cause a reasonable person to act rashly. How the killer
responded to the provocation and the reasonableness of the response is
not relevant to sudden quarrel or heat of passion." (Id. at p. 223.)
CALCRIM No. 570 does not contain the gross
misstatements of the law addressed in Najera. Instead of focusing on
defendant's acts, CALCRIM No. 570 instructs the jury to consider
whether a reasonable person, "knowing the same facts would have
reacted from passion rather than from judgment." This is a correct
statement of the law, and it is not reasonably likely that a jury
instructed in this manner would apply the instruction incorrectly. The
prosecutor's misstatement, made in the heat of argument, does not mean
that a jury would make the same mistake when instructed with the
unambiguous language of CALCRIM No. 570. It was not error for the
trial court to refuse to give the modified instruction requested by
II. Opinion Testimony on Defendant's Confession
Defendant contends the trial court prejudicially
erred in permitting Detective Murchison to give opinion testimony on
the veracity of defendant's confession. Finding the error harmless, we
During Detective Murchison's rebuttal testimony,
the prosecutor asked whether defendant's testimony was consistent with
Ernst's injuries. Defendant objected, claiming lack of foundation,
which the trial court overruled. Murchison started to testify that
regarding the totality of the evidence concerning Ernst's injuries, "I
still just don't understand how," when the trial court stopped him and
said, "Let's be mindful that he's not the expert here." The prosecutor
then moved to another line of questioning.
A little later, the prosecutor elicited from
Detective Murchison that defendant's testimony presented information
about the attack which he had not heard before. The prosecutor next
asked: "And does what she said at trial change your opinion that,
based on the evidence, her confession statement to you was accurate."
Defense counsel objected, as the question "calls for his conclusion as
to her truthfulness. That's for the jury to decide." The trial court
overruled the objection, finding the jury would determine whether
defendant was truthful, but Murchison could still give his opinion.
Murchison then answered, "No, it has not changed."
Defendant asserts Detective Murchison's answer was
inadmissible opinion evidence. Characterizing the question and answer
as "argumentative and irrelevant," defendant concludes the testimony
was "extremely prejudicial because they were addressed to a jury of
citizens as the word of a public official elicited properly by another
public official . . . and with the apparent approval of the judge
"Lay opinion about the veracity of particular
statements by another is inadmissible on that issue." (People v.
Melton (1988) 44 Cal.3d 713, 744.) There are several reasons for this
rule. "With limited exceptions, the fact finder, not the witnesses,
must draw the ultimate inferences from the evidence. Qualified experts
may express opinions on issues beyond common understanding
[citations], but lay views on veracity do not meet the standards for
admission of expert testimony. A lay witness is occasionally permitted
to express an ultimate opinion based on his perception, but only where
`helpful to a clear understanding of his testimony' [citation], i.e.,
where the concrete observations on which the opinion is based cannot
otherwise be conveyed. [Citations.] Finally, a lay opinion about the
veracity of particular statements does not constitute properly founded
character or reputation evidence [citation], nor does it bear on any
of the other matters listed by statute as most commonly affecting
credibility [citation]. Thus, such an opinion has no `tendency in
reason' to disprove the veracity of the statements." (Ibid.)
As the Supreme Court has observed, "a police
officer's opinion regarding the truthfulness of a suspect's confession
is generally deemed inadmissible." (People v. Anderson (1990) 52
Cal.3d 453, 478.) Detective Murchison was not an expert on the
veracity of confessions, and it was error for the trial court to allow
him to give opinion testimony on whether defendant's confession was
truthful. However, the admission of such testimony does not mandate
reversal unless defendant can show it is reasonably probable she would
have obtained a more favorable outcome had her objection been
sustained. (People v. Melton, supra, 44 Cal.3d at pp. 744-745
[applying harmless error test of People v. Watson (1956) 46 Cal.2d
818, 836 to improper question calling for lay opinion testimony about
the veracity of another witness].)
During the People's case-in-chief, Detective
Murchison testified, without any objection from defendant, that he
thought defendant's confession was largely truthful based on numerous
corroborating facts such as her detailed description of the murder
weapon, her placing the victim in the front seat, and the location of
Ernst's body. Defendant's failure to object to this testimony forfeits
any contention that it was improperly admitted. (People v. Anderson,
supra, 52 Cal.3d at p. 478.) Any prejudice from the improper opinion
testimony on rebuttal is diminished by this earlier testimony.
The case against defendant was overwhelming.
Defendant's confession was corroborated by substantial physical
evidence, including the considerable amount of blood in the car and
the back seat in particular. The lack of defensive wounds on Ernst and
the nature of her neck wounds strongly support defendant's confession
that she attacked Ernst from behind and slit her throat. By contrast,
defendant's claim of a mutual struggle that spilled out of the car is
inconsistent with the lack of defensive wounds, the extensive wounding
on Ernst's neck, and the amount and placement of bloodstains in
defendant's car. Her testimony could not readily explain why the
unusual murder weapon was in her car on the night of the murder.
Defendant's explanation, that it was used to help remove lettering
from a door at work, was inconsistent with the coworker's testimony
that their employer provided the tools to remove the lettering from
The error here consisted of a one-sentence answer
by Detective Murchison, that defendant's testimony did not change his
previously stated opinion that her confession was truthful. In light
of the overwhelming evidence of defendant's guilt and the previous
opinion testimony admitted without objection, it is not reasonably
likely that the jury would have reached a different result had the
trial court sustained defendant's objection.
The judgment is affirmed.
HULL, Acting P. J.
Stephanie Nicole Erends
Alicia Ernst, 24.