Penalty Phase: The Defense Witnesses

In the last post, we started day two of the penalty phase and saw the last of the prosecution witnesses. We left off with the moving testimony of June Kibuishi, the mother of murder victim Julie. When June’s testimony was finished, the jury was allowed to take a break.

When the jury was brought back into the courtroom, it was time for the very first defense witness of the entire trial.

Krystin Bergamasco

It didn’t take long to realize that the defense wanted to show the jury that maybe Daniel Wozniak wasn’t a cold, calculating mastermind who committed double murder on his own.

Since the guilt portion of the trial was long over, Scott wasn’t trying to convince anyone that his client was innocent.

But if the DA didn’t have the true story, and if Daniel didn’t do everything he was accused of doing, did he deserve the death penalty?  If Daniel Wozniak was influenced, cajoled, and, most importantly, assisted, then maybe he didn’t cook up this premeditated and confusing scheme to commit murder for money.

Two innocent people were dead, and Scott was not denying Daniel’s involvement in their murders. But now the defense was going to point a finger in another direction: directly at Daniel’s fiancée at the time, Rachel Buffett.

If the jury was going to believe that Rachel could be directly involved in the murders, then the defense had to paint her as both dangerous and manipulative. Enter, stage left: Rachel’s friend and fellow thespian, Krystin.

Around 2006, Krystin and Rachel were both students at Long Beach City College when they were cast in the play Antigone.  When asked if Rachel was well liked, Krystin said no, and that everyone actually avoided Rachel whenever possible.  She described Rachel as “very narcissistic, cold, calculating,” and willing to “do anything to get what she wants.”

Krystin Bergamasco told of an incident where Rachel set up a situation to embarrass another acquaintance just for fun.

Rachel was dating a guy named Kyle Ruebel (we’ll hear from him later).  Another actress in their theatre community was unaware of the relationship between Kyle and Rachel. Unfortunately, she confided in Rachel that she had a crush on Kyle.  According to Krystin’s story, Rachel convinced the other girl to admit her feelings to Kyle. The young woman was humiliated when Kyle admitted to already being in a relationship with Rachel.

Why would Rachel do this? Because she “loved the attention,” explained Krystin.

This might all seem a little “high school mean girl,” but Scott wanted the jury to see that Rachel had a history of spinning webs and being cruel just for sport. And when Krystin told of a conversation between the two of them while headed to Starbucks one day, it made sense why she felt the need to talk to the Costa Mesa Police about Rachel after she learned of the murders of Sam and Julie.

Rachel and Krystin had been talking about auditions for an upcoming production of the Greek tragedy Media.  While discussing two of the central themes of the play, revenge and murder, Rachel asked Krystin a rather odd question.

She wanted to know, “if you could murder someone, and you knew you could get away with it, would you?”  Krystin replied that she would definitely not murder someone.

You guys already know where this is going, right?

Rachel, however, said she would murder someone if she could get away with it, and Krystin believed that her friend was not kidding around.

This event stayed with with Krystin, and after she found out about the murders, she sat down and wrote four pages of notes (to “keep herself organized”) and headed to the police station to let them know they should be looking carefully at Rachel Buffett.

So, not only was Krystin Bergamasco the first defense witness, she was also the first witness to be cross-examined by Matt Murphy.  He didn’t spend much time questioning her.  He asked if she had any hard evidence to prove that Rachel was involved in the murders.  She said no.  That seemed sufficient for Matt to make his point that proving Rachel is mean isn’t quite the same as having DNA evidence or fingerprints.

Side note: So far, I have yet to speak with a theatre person who liked Rachel.  All the people I’ve met who worked with her describe her the same way Krystin did.  But hey, if anyone reading this knows her personally and actually likes her, I would be very interested in hearing about a different side of Rachel. 

Kyle Ruebel

The next defense witness was Rachel’s boyfriend in 2008 / 2009.

With the previous witness, Scott Sanders painted Rachel as a callous narcissist. Now, it was time to show her manipulative, law-breaking side.

Kyle talked about how he often witnessed Rachel stealing from stores at Disneyland (where she and Kyle worked) and how she would convince her younger cousin, Rebecca, to steal with her.  Rachel would defend her actions with the explanation, “they don’t care. It’s a million dollar business.”

Ummm, more like billions, but that doesn’t make it right, Rachel.

Scott Sanders asked Kyle how he felt about Rachel’s stealing.  He said it rubbed him the wrong way, but he’s a passive guy, so he didn’t say anything.

During his cross-examination, Matt Murphy wanted to know if Rachel had ever tried to convince Kyle to break the law.  He said not really, and he pointed out that “you make your own decisions,” and it doesn’t matter if your girlfriend tries to talk you into doing something.

Matt also asked Kyle if being immature, “makes you a criminal mastermind.”

Good one, Matt.  I’m not sure what makes Kyle an expert on this topic, but I’m guessing it was more of a rhetorical question.

Then back to Scott. Why did Rachel and Kyle break up? He said she was manipulative and she caused problems with his friends. She also bragged to him about having sex with another man because she was trying to “egg (him) on” to get into a fight over her (it didn’t work).

I think Matt Murphy got in the last word, though. He asked if these Rachel stories had anything to do with Daniel Wozniak. Kyle said nope, and that was it.

So, did Scott Sanders make his point with these two witnesses?  And what was his point?

Neither of these witnesses said anything that would cause the jury to doubt Daniel’s guilt, but this wasn’t the guilt phase. Maybe throwing a little shade Rachel’s way might cause them to wonder if she had some influence over Daniel’s actions?  That wouldn’t make him innocent, but perhaps they could see him as “life without the possibility of parole” guilty.

Side note – at no point in this trial did the prosecution put forth anyone from Daniel’s pre-Rachel past who had anything bad to say about pre-Rachel Daniel.  

We have two more defense witnesses, and closing arguments, coming up in future posts.