Sentencing Day Part Two: Victim Impact Statements

Judge Conley made quick work of striking down defense attorney Scott Sanders’ motion for the removal of the death penalty in Daniel Wozniak’s sentence.

Conley explained why he planned to go along with the jury’s decision to choose death:

Daniel had no previous crimes or signs of violence in his past. The jury had seen Daniel’s performances in Nine on the weekend of the murders and Daniel appeared fine. The jury rejected any argument that Daniel had been manipulated by Rachel Buffett. Judge Conley also stated there was no evidence from Daniel’s family to support him. His strongest reason for following the recommendation of the jury was that Daniel murdered two of his own friends so he could “get married and honeymoon in style.”

At this point in the sentencing hearing, Jude Conley hadn’t actually said the words “death sentence,” but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind Daniel was about to be sent to San Quentin.

Victim Impact Statements Prior To Sentencing

When court resumed after lunch (I ate crackers, cheese, an apple and a chocolate protein bar), it was time for the victim impact statements.

Now was the opportunity for those who loved Sam and Julie to speak, unhindered, on how the murders directly affected them. Considering the number of people who came to court that day, I was expecting a lot more people to speak, but only four family members ended up giving statements.

Sam Herr’s Family Victim Impact Statements

Sam’s cousin Leah was up first.

She talked of how she and “Sammy” were more like siblings than cousins. She described Sam as kind, loving and generous. She acknowledged Sam’s “difficult” time as a young adult, but her cousin had redefined himself in the Army and was trying to “pay society back” for his mistakes.

Leah imagined her own nine-year-old daughter speaking directly to Daniel Wozniak, and how the child would tell him that her uncle was only trying to help him and would have loaned Daniel the money.

Sam’s aunt Miriam spoke next. She said she should be able to speak for seven hours, one hour for each year the Herr family waited for justice.

Miriam’s anger toward defense attorney Scott Sanders was palpable. She accused Sanders of trying to gain his own glory from Daniel’s trial. Sam’s aunt finished her statement with a hope that Sam and Julie would be guarding the gates of heaven to keep Daniel from entering when he dies.

Steve Herr’s Statements

The final member of Sam’s family to speak was his father, Steve Herr. His wife Raquel stood next to him.

Steve made a request of all of Sam’s fellow veterans who’d come to court that day. He wanted them to join him and Sam’s mom at the podium. I think there were eight of Sam’s Army friends flanking the Herrs and supporting them during Steve’s statement.

He began by thanking Judge Conley, Matt Murphy, and the Costa Mesa Police for all their hard work. He expressed sympathy for the Kibuishi family.

Steve Herr said he could speak for hours about his son Sam, who he and Raquel loved with all their hearts.

A letter was read from Army Capt. Benjamin Kilgore, Sam’s troop leader in Afghanistan. Capt. Kilgore praised Sam’s character and bravery as a U.S. soldier.

Steve Herr looked at Daniel and reminded him about the man he’d murdered, stating that Daniel Wozniak is the “poster boy” for the need of a death penalty in California.

At the end of his victim impact statement, Steve Herr voiced that his “only regret” was that the state of California wouldn’t let him “kill this coward” himself.

Do you think it would make Steve Herr feel a little better if he could punch Daniel in the face really hard just one time? Daniel is my friend, but I certainly wouldn’t begrudge any of Sam’s or Julie’s people the opportunity to punch him in the face. I don’t think Daniel would even complain about that. I really don’t.

 You know what though? I think some of them would trade the chance to punch Daniel if there was an opportunity to punch Scott Sanders in the face. I’m not saying it’s deserved, but there is a lot of anger aimed at Scott.

Julie Kibuishi’s Family Victim Impact Statements

The final victim impact statement was made by June Kibuishi, Julie’s mother, while her husband Masa stood next to her at the podium. She looked directly at Daniel and began, “On May 22, 2010, you took my beautiful precious daughter’s life,” by murdering Julie and then disgracing her to use her as a decoy.

June Kibuishi talked about how her family came from Japan more than thirty years ago so they could give their children a better life. The Kibuishis taught their kids to be good people with loving hearts, but June’s own heart was, “ripped apart when (she) found out what happened to (her) baby.”

Julie’s mother sobbed as she asked Daniel Wozniak how he could “take away (her) baby.” She berated Daniel for showing no remorse or guilt in the courtroom, instead smiling and enjoying being the center of attention, and “if anyone deserves the death penalty, it’s him.”

June may have been the only Kibuishi family member to speak, but she packed enough of an emotional wallop for her entire family.

I’ve wondered how the families made the decision of who would talk at Daniel’s sentencing hearing. Were there some family members who knew they wouldn’t be able to even get words out, or others who though they might explode with anger if they looked at, and spoke directly to, Daniel Wozniak?

It makes me think of footage from the Jeffrey Dahmer trial. A woman who was the sister of one of his victims had to be restrained by deputies when she came at Dahmer screaming, “Jeffery, I hate you!” No, I am not comparing Daniel to Jeffrey Dahmer in any way. I’m just contemplating the level of anger a person must feel in that situation, and how challenging it would be to keep your calm.

Daniel did look directly at the speakers during their statements. Well, actually I couldn’t see him during Steve Herr’s statement because of all the Army guys (Not that I’m complaining about the view at that point).

Daniel Wozniak’s Response To The Victim Impact Statements

I know many people probably saw Daniel as expressionless because of what appeared to be a lack of emotion on his face. One journalist asked me if I think Daniel is a psychopath. I said no. I don’t.

I think he was just really listening, and probably trying not to have any expression on his face. If he cried, people would think he felt sorry for himself or, worse yet, he was “acting.” I saw a man who is genuinely contrite, but that’s probably because I know he is.

Judge Conley Sentences Daniel Wozniak

It was 2:15 PM on September 25, 2016, when Judge Conley read the official sentencing.

Daniel Wozniak was given two sentences of twenty-five years to life (the extra sentences were unexpected), and the death penalty.

He was to be sent to San Quentin State Prison and placed in California’s only death row facility within ten days of the sentencing.

Before court adjourned, Judge Conley set one final hearing for the following Friday. This was to settle the specifics of the financial restitution that Daniel Wozniak will pay to the Sam’s and Julie’s families.

Prosecutor Matt Murphy was so enthusiastic about getting Daniel on his way to San Quentin, he suggested Daniel be driven the over four hundred miles right away and then be driven back to appear in court the next week. Judge Conley turned down that plan, but I suspect Matt Murphy would have offered to drive Daniel to San Quentin himself.

Let’s just take a moment to imagine Matt Murphy behind the wheel of what I’d imagine would be a black Mercedes M-class, a shackled Daniel Wozniak riding shotgun. What station would be on Matt’s radio? I’d like to imagine him picking an old standards station. I can just see the two of them on the open highway, both singing along to Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night.”

Daniel Wozniak Leaves The Orange County Jail For San Quentin’s Death Row

 Today I received my last letter from Daniel at the OC Jail. He’d written it just after I left on Sunday night. He said that as soon as our visit ended, the deputies told him to prepare to leave or “roll up,” if you’re using the vernacular of the incarcerated. That probably means they drove to San Quentin in the dark. I wonder if Daniel slept at all. I think he was planning to stay awake and see as much as he could see.

Some of you won’t be happy to learn this, but Daniel isn’t scared or worried to be going to death row. He has a pretty good sense of what it will be like in there and already has friends “on the row” who he met when he was in the OC Jail.

Also, once a person is actually in prison, there is access to a lot more creature comforts. So, he’s not really worse off. He did say he’d miss seeing me every Monday, but he’s pleased to have access to the San Quentin law library where he can find information for his own case, but more so, to help other inmates with their legal issues.

Daniel Wozniak will never be able to make up for what he took from the Herr family and the Kibuishi family, but all he can do now is try to move forward, and be his best self from here on out. I think that’s the most anyone can do.

Sentencing Day

It’s official. Daniel Wozniak is on his way to death row.

Literally. As I’m writing this on Monday, October 3rd, he’s being moved to San Quentin.

Normally, I visit him on Mondays.

Daniel didn’t know precisely what time he’d be leaving today because inmates aren’t given an exact time of departure. It’s a security risk.

However, if he was still at the OC Jail, Daniel was scheduled to have an early morning day room time today. He told me he would call me during day room (which he’s done pretty much every day for the past two years). If there was no phone call, then he was already gone.

No phone call.

2b54199e-8626-4812-a13a-b72b66714537I’ve spent a lot of time with Daniel this past week, so I’m behind in getting a post out. I’ve been visiting him officially as a member of the media. That meant I was able to visit him during off hours, and for much longer visits.

I left the Orange County Jail at 10 PM last night. The visiting room can be a little spooky when the place is empty. More about all that in another post.

Anyhoo – Let’s get to Daniel Wozniak’s sentencing hearing.

The Sentencing Hearing of Daniel Wozniak

On Friday, September 23, 2016, Judge Conley did the expected. He followed the jury’s recommendation and sentenced Daniel Wozniak to San Quentin’s death row.

8cced811-57d3-46f2-b8f5-73532798beacThe courtroom was packed that day. Many of the seats were filled with Sam’s and Julie’s family and friends. Relatives had even flown in to witness Daniel Wozniak’s sentencing. The Herr family brought an Army battalion (I’ll explain that when we get to the victim impact statements in the next post).

The rest of the place was filled with reporters, producers, news cameras, photographers, lookie-loos, and at least four jury members (three sat next to me and the forewoman sat between Sam’s mom and his aunt). There were also three extra Sherrif’s deputies.

Then there was me.

I felt really small and out of place. It was an odd experience knowing that everyone else in the crowd wanted my friend to die. The atmosphere in the courtroom was almost jovial. Before the hearing started, and during the breaks, people seemed cheery, energized and excited. It was as though this was an audience about to see a sold out performance of Hamilton. (I wish.)

I can understand why people hate Daniel so much. My own Facebook feed was riddled with posts from theatre friends with comments like ”it’s about time” and ”if anyone deserves to die it’s this guy,” interspersed with links to newspaper stories about the sentencing.

I had similar views when I first heard all about Daniel Wozniak’s crime. I wasn’t wishing death upon the man, but geez, he murdered a vet.  He dismembered the guy. He murdered an innocent girl to put the blame on the vet. He did all this to pay for his wedding and honeymoon. Yikes!

That is the prosecution’s story, and a lot of people believe it completely. Daniel Wozniak has never spoken out in his defense. The video footage of Daniel’s confession is all most people have ever heard. It’s not a far leap to assume that Daniel Wozniak is an evil and unredeemable sub-human.

I don’t believe the entirety of the prosecution’s story though, and I do speak with Daniel all the time.  I know a different person from the monster described in court.

Does that mean I don’t want him to go to San Quentin’s Death Row?

Actually, I’m okay with it.

If the Herr family and the Kibuishi family got some closure, relief, vengeance even, from Daniel receiving the death sentence, then I am not going to argue with that.

As Daniel’s friend, though, I’m glad we are in California. The last time someone was put to death in this state was 2006, and there are over 700 death row inmates ahead of Daniel.  Also, California just might abolish the death penalty in November’s election.

I don’t want Daniel to be put to death. I believe that he still has something to offer to the world (or at least his fellow inmates).  Daniel knows he will never make up for what he took from the Herr and Kibuishi families. But I’m going to use that old death penalty opponent’s argument and point out that taking Daniel’s life won’t bring back Sam and Julie.

Daniel Wozniak will likely never see the inside of San Quentin’s execution chamber. His death sentence is really more of a life-behind-bars sentence. It is also only the beginning of what will be years and years of appeals.

And yes, I will be taking some road trips up North to visit death row.

Sanders’ Last Motion

Defense attorney Scott Sanders fought the death penalty sentence until the last second.  He even filed another one of his famous (or infamous, if you ask the Orange County DA’s office) motions that same day, requesting the death penalty be dropped or Daniel be given a new penalty trial.

Sanders argued that Matt Murphy and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office have shown obvious inconsistencies in what has been said about Daniel’s ex-fiancée, Rachel Buffett, and her possible role in the murders of Sam Herr and Julie Kibuishi.

It turns out, in his indictment against Rachel, Murphy claimed that he knew she was involved, or at least had complete knowledge of the murders, and that she definitely tried to help Daniel cover them up.

During Daniel’s trial, Rachel came off as an innocent victim, the deceived fiancée. Upon learning the horrible truth, Rachel Buffett behaved like a dutiful citizen, and was instrumental when it came to helping the police obtain the evidence needed to prosecute Daniel.

So which Rachel is the correct one… and how can the OCDA go on the record saying both of these descriptions are true?

If investigators believe Rachel was a conspirator, shouldn’t Daniel’s jury have been told? If you remember from Daniel’s trial, in closing arguments Matt Murphy said the jury could go ahead and assume Rachel is guilty of something, but don’t let that change anyone’s opinions about Daniel.

I think Scott Sanders’ point is that Daniel received the death penalty because of the special circumstances surrounding his case, specifically the motive of financial gain. But what if the motive wasn’t money?

Scott Sanders wanted an opportunity to re-question Detective Jose Morales regarding the credibility of his testimony about Rachel’s possible involvement in the murders. Sanders didn’t believe Morales had been entirely credible. Perhaps the detective actually did learn some pertinent information from the jail house snitch who was put in place to manipulate Daniel into talking.

Sanders reiterated that the defense has fought tooth and nail to have access to the informant information. He even predicted that more information would conveniently be discovered after Daniel has been sentenced.

Scott Sanders hasn’t earned many friends in the courtroom. His statements often elicited eye-rolling and groans of disgust from the majority of the onlookers (including those jurors next to me). Matt Murphy even enjoyed getting in a few barbs by making fun of Scott Sanders verbosity and claiming that if Sanders wasn’t “accusing people of misconduct,” he’d only speak for five minutes.  The crowd guffawed at that one.

Umm Matt, you talked way more than Scott did during the trial. Just sayin’.

Scott Sanders also wanted the opportunity to question the informants themselves to see if they had any favorable statements about their observations of Daniel Wozniak.

I’m sure the jury wouldn’t have cared either way.

Judge Conley called this a “sleepwalker scenario,” claiming it wasn’t important if Daniel “did good deeds, but didn’t know it.”

You completely confused me with that argument, Your Honor. Just because Daniel doesn’t testify about how he often helps out other inmates, doesn’t mean he’s unaware that he does it. The only way the jury could learn about Daniel’s “good deeds” would be from the observations of others.

Judge Conley also accused Scott Sanders of trying to get in the “back door” by filing this last minute brief. He then struck down the entirety of Sanders’ brief, calling it “untimely.”

Since his client was about to be sentenced, though, I’d say Sanders’ continued attempts to save Daniel from death row seemed pretty timely.

The death penalty was not dismissed and a new trial will not be granted.

In fact, Judge Conley acknowledged that there was misconduct in Daniel Wozniak’s case, but he still believed that Daniel got a fair trial.

Wait. What?? Someone got that statement on the record, right?

Clearly nothing was gong to derail Daniel’s train to execution town.

Coming Next…

I’ll tell you about the victim impact statements in part two of this post. It won’t take long, I promise.

Penalty Phase: The Defense’s Closing Argument

“He will die in custody,” stated defense attorney Scott Sanders during his closing statement in the penalty phase of Daniel Wozniak’s trial. “He deserves the strongest punishment.”

Did I mention that this was the defense?

Here’s the thing: I’m sure Sanders wanted the jury to know they didn’t need to recommend the death penalty. Daniel wasn’t going anywhere and he wouldn’t be a danger to society.

Daniel had no criminal past, and before this he’d never been convicted of a violent crime. Daniel has been a model prisoner during his incarceration. So do these terrible acts represent Daniel as a person, or did he take a horrible detour?

Scott Sanders was very clear. He was not trying to diminish what Daniel did or the suffering he caused to all the people who loved Sam and Julie.

But he did want the jury members to make decisions for themselves and ask “what happened” to Daniel.

Also, Scott Sanders wanted to answer that question: Rachel Buffett happened to Daniel Wozniak.

The Rachel Buffett Question

Is Rachel an integral part of this story? No doubt about it. But is she a reason to commit murder?

When I tell someone about my blog and explain the details of the crime, I end the explanation by saying that, according to the prosecution, all of this happened because Daniel and Rachel were getting married, and he needed to pay for the wedding.

I don’t believe the money motive. You guys know that. But it’s the only one the prosecution gave us.  Technically, that means no wedding equals no murders, right?

Furthermore, Rachel wasn’t just Daniel’s unwitting fiancée, asserted Scott Sanders, she was cruel, conniving and crafty. Sanders wanted the jury to view Rachel as the catalyst. He reminded them of the details about Rachel that came out during the trial:

  • Rachel had a history of causing conflict. She would stir up problems with those around her just for the “thrill of it.”
  • The police do not believe Daniel’s claim that Rachel had no knowledge of the murders.
  • Rachel didn’t tell the police about Chris Williams and how he had loaned them money.
  • Rachel knew there were no “loan sharks,” and that Daniel wasn’t in any danger if he didn’t pay back the money.
  • When questioned by the police, Rachel claimed to still be in fear of loan sharks.
  • Rachel lied to the police about seeing a third man with Daniel and Sam on the day Sam was murdered.
  • Police have testified that they believe Rachel was directly involved in the murders.

Yes, we’d heard all that before, but Scott Sanders did make a couple of new points I found interesting.

The Text Messages Question

First, he talked about those texts sent from Sam’s cell phone to Julie. Sanders scrolled through the texts for the jury and pointed out how their tone and wording changed dramatically as soon as Daniel was home with Rachel. When Daniel was alone, the texts were joking and casual.  He suggested that their only purpose was to make it seem as though Sam was still alive. But when Daniel got home to Rachel, suddenly the texts were about asking Julie to come over. They became serious and emotional.

Interesting point. I hadn’t noticed that before. It sounds like Sanders was saying that Rachel came up with the plan to murder Julie.

The Calendar Question

Scott Sanders also talked about a “calendar problem” with Rachel’s account of the crime:

  • On May 26th,2010 she lied to the police about seeing a third man with Sam and Daniel on the day Sam was killed. Ostensibly this was to help Daniel with his alibi.
  • But on May 27th, Rachel was brought into the police station to hear Daniel’s confession. This was supposedly the first she learned about the murders at all.

Why would she be lying for Daniel if she didn’t yet know Sam was dead?

The Confession Question

Rachel also told the police she was afraid loan sharks, but she knew there were no loan sharks because Chris Williams had told her.  During that confession, Rachel hadn’t seemed shocked or upset, even though she was learning that her fiancé had just confessed to double homicide.

Side note: Scott’s impersonation of Rachel during the confession was hilarious. Here was this super-serious attorney guy trying to sound like… umm… a vapid Barbie doll?

Was Daniel Manipulated?

Scott Sanders wanted the jury to get a different image of Daniel Wozniak. He wasn’t the monster described by the prosecution. Daniel was manipulated.

Rachel was Daniel’s entire life and he would do anything for her. Daniel was going to protect Rachel, and Rachel was going to protect Rachel. So Daniel took the blame for everything.

Daniel had asked that Rachel be brought in to hear his confession so she’d know the story she should stick to. Daniel even made himself look as horrible as possible (claiming that hiding the murders was “borderline fun”), so they would focus on him entirely.

Sanders was telling the jury Rachel is smarter than Daniel, because she didn’t get caught, and she made sure the police would have evidence against Daniel.

Rachel just “walks through the rain drops,” Sanders announced to the jury.

Does Daniel Deserve To Die?

It seemed like Scott Sanders was saying that Daniel Wozniak shouldn’t be given the death penalty because there is good inside him. The murders of Sam and Julie are inexcusable, but Daniel could still be a useful member of society (well… ok… prison society).

Scott Sanders doesn’t think Daniel is the worst of the worst. He reminded the jury about Edward Munoz, who in-spite of having a criminal past, was telling the truth about who Daniel is behind bars. “To me,” Munoz had told the jury when he was on the stand, “he is a good person.”

Scott Sanders spoke plainly: Daniel Wozniak “will never make it up to the families, but don’t we want him to do his best now?”

One Last Push From Prosecutor Matt Murphy

By the way, during Scott Sanders’ entire closing, Matt Murphy still didn’t give up on the “one/one” argument. He was determined to get another opportunity to speak after Sanders’ closing. There was discussion that the jury might have problems recalling the details of the prosecution’s closing.

Scott Sanders did not stop fighting to have the judge stick to his decision to end the trial with the defense’s closing. He pointed out that the prosecution’s opening argument was longer than the defense’s entire case.

Judge Conley continued to reluctantly side in favor of Sanders, but before he could give the final jury instructions, he would see council in his chambers one more time.  Matt Murphy looked pissed when they came back out, and I knew that one “one/one” fight was done.

Finally! That just got annoying, Matt. I’d admire your tenaciousness, but jeez, it was enough already. Trust me – you talked plenty.

The Jury Deliberates

The judge told the jury they needed to have a unanimous decision in order to give Daniel the death penalty.  So, Mike the bailiff escorted them into the deliberation room, and those of us in the courtroom readied ourselves for a long wait.

They were back in less than an hour.

Next…

In the next post, I will tell you what it’s like to watch a jury recommend that your friend be put to death.

Penalty Phase: The Prosecution’s Closing Argument

It was January 7, 2016 and Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy was soon to begin his closing argument in the penalty phase of Daniel’s trial.  Judge Conley’s courtroom was packed.  The victims’ family members filled many of the seats. There were also quite a few young lawyer types in suits probably there to observe the battle royal about to take place between Murphy and Daniel’s defense lawyer, Scott Sanders.

One / One / One

The action started even before the jury was brought into the courtroom, when Matt Murphy contested a previous ruling in the case.

Normally, the prosecution gets to have the final word with the jury. The prosecution speaks first and last… a defense attorney sandwich, you might say. This “one/one/one” order is a way for the prosecution to rebut any statements made by the defense.

However, in an earlier hearing, Judge Conley ruled that in the penalty phase of Daniel’s trial, there would be a “one/one” order for the closing arguments, which meant that Scott Sanders would get to have the last words to the jury. It wasn’t exactly clear why Judge Conley had made that decision. It almost seemed like he’d done it in error and Sanders wasn’t going to let him just switch it back without a clear legal reason.

Matt Murphy was not happy about this, and he fought more than once to have the decision reversed. Scott Sanders was not backing down, though, and in the end he “one/one/won” the right to talk last.

This meant Matt Murphy would have to guess what Scott Sanders was going to say in his closing, and he wanted to counter any and all possible arguments Scott Sanders might bring up to defend Daniel’s life.

Murphy started his closing with the goal of making a personal connection with the jury. He said he felt he knew each of them from reading their questionnaires, and they would know in their own hearts what they should do. But, a moment later, he called upon the jury members to “put (their) feelings aside” and recommend death for Daniel.

Which is it? Use their hearts or put their feelings aside? These seem like mixed messages.

 Matt Murphy was going to say whatever it took to convince the jury that my friend Daniel Wozniak is irredeemable and deserves to die. Murphy suggested that there could be some situations where society might understand why a person committed murder.  The example Matt Murphy used was a revenge killing of a child molester. That’s the kind of situation where “well, maybe we would kill that guy.”(The child molester.)

But Daniel’s motivation, according to the prosecution, was money.  If Scott Sanders was planning to suggest anything else, Murphy wanted to knock out that idea before it could even be brought up.

Knocking Down The Defense Witnesses

Continuing with his closing, Murphy began to demean some defense witnesses.  He claimed Krystin Bergamasco’s testimony was insignificant, and what she had to say reminded him of when “he watched Glee” because of how much it sounded like high school drama.  Kyle Ruebel‘s testimony wasn’t to be taken seriously, either. Murphy acquiesced that Kyle is a nice guy, but he didn’t understand how he “got all the ladies.”

Dealing With Rachel Buffett

Next up, Murphy dealt with the Rachel card. He knew Scott Sanders would talk about Rachel during his closing, but what would he say? Murphy started listing possible topics Sanders might use in an attempt to throw some blame Rachel’s way:

  • The defense needs a villain to blame.
  • People don’t like Rachel.
  • Rachel was living with Daniel.
  • Rachel would also benefit from any financial gain.
  • Rachel was near Daniel while the texting to Julie was happening.
  • Rachel cried on-stage for the first time on the night Sam was murdered.
  • Rachel lied to the police about seeing a third man with Daniel and Sam on the day Sam was murdered.
  • She didn’t tell the police about Chris Williams.
  • She “echoed” Daniel’s lies about Sam having family problems.
  • Everett said that Rachel should also be on trial for murder.

Murphy didn’t argue against any of the Rachel accusations. In fact, he admitted that he “would love to bring (Rachel) to trial for murder,” but he didn’t have the evidence to do it. Murphy told the jury that he believes Daniel lied over and over when he said Rachel wasn’t involved, but Daniel wouldn’t “sell her down the river.” So, Matt Murphy decided to make it simple for the jury: “If you think she may have done it, just assume she did, but that doesn’t negate what Daniel did.”

That is a valid point. But it makes me wonder. How can the prosecution sell the jury on Daniel’s confession when they don’t believe it?

Murphy then proceeded to insult defense witness Daniel Munoz, calling Munoz an “idiot” and a liar, and claiming he was surprised “that guy didn’t get arrested on his way out of the court.”

I don’t believe it was necessary to be that rude. I think Murphy could have discredited Munoz’s testimony without it being such a personal attack on the guy.

A Reminder Of Motive

Then Murphy’s closing jumped back to the aggravating circumstances that make this a death penalty case: financial gain and multiple murders. He referred to this not being the olden days of Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol, and how it was disgusting to have wanted money for a “silly wedding.” He wondered why Daniel’s computer didn’t contain Google searches on ways to make money such as selling a kidney or becoming a male prostitute.

Uh…? Charles Dickens? Male prostitute? What?

Obviously, he was trying to make the point that stealing  money to pay for a wedding is a sickening motive for murder, but his analogies were a bit peculiar to say the least.

Also, if Scott Sanders was planning to suggest that Daniel might have a more emotion-based reason for committing murder, Murphy was going to cross that bridge before Scott could come to it. The prosecution wasn’t going to get a rebuttal and had to make sure Daniel was painted as evil, not insane or intoxicated. After all, Daniel hadn’t done any Google searches about “hearing voices,” and no drug evidence was found.

I wasn’t sure if that meant there was no drug evidence found in any of the locations related to the case, or just in Daniel and Rachel’s apartment.  Either way, it surprised me. Early on in our correspondence, I got the impression that Daniel had been abusing drugs at the time of the murders. I don’t think that I misinterpreted this, but I did expect there to be signs of  drug use in Daniel’s  apartment. That is something I’ll want to ask him about. Hmmm…

I’ll finish with the prosecution’s closing argument in my next post.  We’ll start with why Scott Sanders called a sidebar in the midst of it..!

Penalty Phase – Opening Arguments

The penalty phase of Daniel’s trial started on January 4, 2016. Court began at 10:30 that day, and I was bundled up while walking to the Orange County Courthouse. I’d even broken out gloves and a scarf for this Californian’s version of a winter morning (I think it was 60 degrees Fahrenheit, so, brrrrrr).

Or, it’s possible that heading up to the eighth floor to watch twelve people decide if my friend should be put to death made me feel cold from the inside out.

The guilt phase of Daniel’s trial was all about facts. But, in the penalty phase, emotions would dominate.

Before the jury could be brought into the courtroom, the judge made some rulings on whether or not to allow certain photographs relating to Sam Herr’s funeral into evidence:

• A photo of Sam’s parents being handed a folded American flag: Allowed.
• Soldiers carrying Sam’s casket: Not allowed.
• Sam’s former fiancée crying over his casket: Allowed.
• Umm, I think there was one of Sam with a puppy he adopted while serving in Afghanistan: Not allowed.

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly didn’t want the jury to give Daniel the death penalty, but was one “puppy picture” going to tip the scale? Of course, people do love puppies. I love puppies. Would it have taken the jury even less time to decide on death if they had seen the puppy picture?

Then there was discussion about the Google searches found on the computer from Daniel and Rachel’s apartment. The jury had already seen the searches during the guilt phase, but Scott Sanders didn’t want them to be reminded that inquiries about cruise ship amenities coincided with questions about hiding bodies. Judge Conley said the law was strict where the death penalty applied, and he ruled that the jury didn’t need to see certain information twice.

I am pretty sure that no one could forget those searches anyway.

Judge Conley gave the jury additional instructions when they were finally brought in at 10:50 AM: “Nothing the attorney says or asks is evidence. Only what the witness says is evidence.”

Okay! Everyone… ignore the lawyers!

Next, there was an explanation about the difference between mitigating and aggravating circumstances. Mitigating circumstances should lean the jury away from choosing the death penalty; aggravating circumstances are the “let’s fry him” details.

So far, there hadn’t been much in the way of mitigating circumstances, so I wondered if we could expect some from Scott during this phase of the trial.

The penalty phase is almost its own mini trial. It starts with opening arguments. Then there’s the questioning and cross-examining of witnesses, and it ends with closing arguments.

An interesting little side note: Normally the prosecution has an opportunity to give a rebuttal after the defense closes. However, because of a previous ruling in this case by Judge Conley, the defense would actually have the last word during the penalty phase. This caused a great deal of contention for Matt Murphy, who continuously tried to fight this motion up until the end of the trial.

Then, it was time to get started. Everyone was in their place. Matt Murphy was raring to go.

Another side note (sorry, but this one is directed to Matt, Scott and Tracy): As a theatre director I need to tell ALL the attorneys to SPEAK UP. My goodness, you folks need to learn how to project and enunciate. Seriously. This is not meant as an insult. It’s just constructive criticism. Maybe you’re trying to make a more intimate connection with the jury. If that’s the case, you can accomplish this without dropping your volume. I’d even be willing to rehearse with any of you if you’d like. As an example, remember on Monday when we were all waiting around in the courtroom for that other case to finish? Well, I had no trouble hearing those attorneys, and they had their backs to the audience. So, just sayin’.

And back to court.

Matt Murphy was up. He started by talking about Daniel’s life. He directed the jury to his first PowerPoint slide.

But, in a rare move for the defense in this case, Scott Sanders actually piped up with “Objection,” and said he needed to address the court in chambers.

MMTVL was intrigued.

Daniel was left alone at the defense table. Usually, he would just stare forward. Maybe he was making anagrams out of the letters on the seal of California.

When everyone was back, Matt Murphy went back to the PowerPoint and BAM, Scott was objecting again. Some spectators scoffed at his request to return to chambers.

Daniel even turned from the table to give me a quick confused glance.

They returned from chambers, and the judge explained what was causing the commotion. The first objection was to some information about Daniel’s life and background contained on one of the PowerPoint slides. During the first trip to chambers, the slide was ruled inadmissible.

BUT…

It turns out that slide was still up on the screen when the machine was turned back on. This meant that the jury could have easily seen the inadmissible information.

Hence Scott’s second objection.

Oops?

This could have turned into a huge ordeal, but Judge Conley wasn’t going to stop the trial quite yet.

In addressing the jury, he wanted to know if any of them had seen the information on the slide. Show of hands? Then each of those jury members were brought into chambers to be individually questioned by the judge and the attorneys. After all was said and done, it was agreed that everyone could just forget whatever they saw and we could get on with our trial.

Phew?

So, what was on that slide? Really, it was just information about how Daniel’s background had been pretty normal. Maybe Matt wanted to point out that Daniel had no excuse for his actions, having been raised in stable family environment.

And why should the defense want to want to keep this from the jury? I know that Daniel wants to protect his family’s privacy as much as possible, but it seemed like such a fuss over something apparently fairly innocuous.

Rachel Buffett was next on Murphy’s agenda. He was pretty sure that Rachel would be a much-discussed topic during the defense’s arguments (she was), and if the jury was going to have any doubts about Daniel’s level of guilt, he wanted to nip them in the bud now.

Matt admitted that there are plenty of reasons to suspect Rachel of being involved with Daniel and the crime:

• Some people don’t like her (specifically certain police officers).
• She was living with Daniel, and they were always together. So she must have known what he was doing.
• If Daniel gained financially, then so would Rachel.
• She cried onstage (during a crying scene).
• She lied to the police about seeing a third man with Sam and Daniel on the day Sam was murdered.

But then Matt Murphy went on to defend Rachel’s claims of having no involvement whatsoever:

• None of Rachel’s DNA was found on the murder weapon.
• Her DNA was not found on the backpack
• Rachel didn’t borrow any money from Chris Williams.
• She told Chris that Dan was a pathological liar and not to trust him.
• Rachel called Detective Morales and turned over evidence to him.
• She’s had steady employment at Medieval Times and hasn’t been in any trouble since the murders happened.
• During his confession, Daniel himself insisted that Rachel wasn’t involved.

I think that Matt wanted to try to cover all the bases and be ready for whatever the defense was going to say. It appeared that he wasn’t taking any chances that the jury might blame Rachel and possibly not choose death for Daniel.

Will the Orange County D.A.’s office emphasize Rachel’s good qualities when they have her on trial?

Daniel's Google search (courtesy of ABC7)
Daniel’s Google search (courtesy of ABC7)

Next, the prosecution went on to remind the jury about a few of those Google searches, including the “making sure a body isn’t found,” and “head gunshot.” Matt wasn’t allowed to talk about the search for “Sirius” (This is probably because the brightest star in the night sky, also known colloquially as the “Dog Star” isn’t likely an important issue in this case).

Then Matt summerized the testimonies of witnesses Chris Williams and Wesley “ATM kid” Frielich. The prosecution did not want the jury to forget about how emotional each of them had been on the stand. They both talked about feelings of betrayal and fear as a direct result of Daniel’s actions.

All of this was Matt’s argument proving that Daniel Wozniak doesn’t deserve to live. The jury should see he is callous, self-serving, and that friendship means nothing to him. Murphy connected Daniel to his ironically similar character Guido Contini, in the musical Nine. The jury heard that while Daniel and Rachel were singing and dancing onstage, Julie’s and Sam’s families were in a panicked search for their loved ones.

Matt Murphy went through the timeline again. He reminded the jury of Sam’s murder in the theatre attic. After that, Daniel started taking out some of Sam’s money. And to make it look like Sam was on the run, there was the plot to lure Julie to Sam’s apartment in order to kill her and frame Sam.

Matt claimed Daniel knew that Julie and Sam were good people. He was aware they both had friends and family members who loved them, but he didn’t care. As he finished his opening arguement, Murphy wanted to convey to every one in the courtroom that today was for those friends and family.

It was time for the defense’s opening arguments. Once again, Tracy LeSage took the stage.

She started by telling the jury that the defense appreciated and respected the thoughtful consideration they used during the guilt phase. She also admitted that the defense was in no way trying to excuse or justify Daniel’s actions. However, she asked that they be fair to both sides, to please keep an open mind and look deep inside themselves, and to bring justice to the process.

That was it. She didn’t really cover any more ground than she had in her closing for the guilt phase.

As far as Daniel avoiding the death penalty, well…let’s just say I wasn’t hopeful (good thing, right?).

Next up: The Prosecution’s witnesses and victim impact statements. You might want to have a box of tissues nearby.