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.

Penalty Phase Prosecution Witnesses: Day Two

Day two of the penalty phase in the trial of Daniel Wozniak started with a ruling about bringing up the criminal background of defense witness Daniel Munoz, who would vouch for Daniel’s character later that day. Judge Conley used what he called a “quick and dirty approach” to go through the rather long rap sheet of this witness, and told Matt Murphy to “make (him) an offer” about what priors he wanted to mention to the jury. Munoz met Daniel when they were both in jail.

While Matt Murphy discussed Munoz’s numerous “scary” tattoos, I couldn’t help feeling that this man might not impress the jury that much.  I think his crimes were all theft related… maybe some gang stuff… I’m not sure.  Either way, I’m not knocking Mr. Munoz as a person, but as a character witness. He probably wasn’t up there with church pastor, you know?

After this business was settled, the bailiffs brought Daniel Wozniak into the courtroom.  You always know when they are bringing him into the courtroom because you can hear the cell doors clanking open and slamming shut right before he enters. It’s like a sound cue.

In spite of being on trial for murder, Daniel has a natural bounce in his step even when chained and handcuffed.  That probably rubs some people the wrong way.

There was a short wait before the jury was brought back in. One of them was running late. In that person’s defense, it had been seriously pouring rain that morning and there was flooding and traffic jams everywhere.  Give us Californians an earthquake and we’re fine, but when water falls from the sky, it causes problems.

Once everyone was in their spots, it was time for the prosecution to continue with witness testimony.

Emi Kibuishi

The next person up was Emi Kibuishi, the youngest of the Kibuishi children.  She described her big sister, Julie, as a loving protector with a big personality.  She, and a cousin, looked up to Julie and the three of them were always together.  They loved to dance.

At one point, Murphy put up a picture of the girls from Halloween.  Emi was a bunny and Julie was Jasmine from Alladin.

Julie’s murder happened on the day of Emi’s senior prom. The next morning, Emi was scheduled to try out for the spirit squad at the University of California, Irvine.  The family decided to keep her sister’s death from her until after.

Emi thought it was strange When the entire family came to pick her up after the tryout. But when she saw that her mother was crying, she immediately realized that Julie wasn’t in the car, and she knew something terrible had happened.

There was no cross-examination. Another good decision for Scott.

June Kibuishi

Julie’s petite and soft-spoken mother, June Kibuishi, was the final prosecution witness.  When I was going over my notes from the trial, I noticed that I didn’t have that many for Julie’s mom.  I don’t think she was on the stand for that long, but I still felt like my notes might have been lacking.

There were a lot of times that I cried during this trial, and I suspect that was the reason my notes are choppy.

When June Kibuishi had been pregnant with Julie, she was told she was having another boy. But on Valentine’s Day in 1987, the Kibuishi family was thrilled to welcome their first girl.  On the stand, June described her daughter as a bubbly and athletic tomboy who balanced playing softball with her love of dancing.  Her voice cracked as she told the jury about little girl’s fondness for skirt spins and curtsies.

Julie was accepted into the Commercial Dance Conservatory at the prestigious Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) in the eighth grade.  June Kibuishi proudly explained that this was when the school had first started accepting junior high students.

OCSA held a memorial for Julie at the ten-year reunion of her high school graduation. A plaque in her honor was put up at the school with the words: Juri “Julie” Kibuishi. Always in our hearts. Next to the message is an inlaid image of a dancing young woman.

Various photographs were displayed on the video screen during June Kibuishi’s testimony. We saw a picture of the plaque, one of the Kibuishi extended family in front of a Christmas tree, and another Julie and June together.  The two of them looked so happy in that image; June’s head resting on Julie’s shoulder.

At the end of her testimony, a sobbing June Kibuishi held up the tiara her daughter Julie was wearing when she was murdered.

And again, there was no cross-examination.  Phew.

The jury was sent out for a break, and an agitated Scott Sanders had a point to make with the judge.

The Tiara

There had been no disclosure to the defense that the clearly inflammatory tiara would be brought into court. It hadn’t been previously introduced as a piece of physical evidence.

Matt Murphy insisted that he had no idea what June Kibuishi had planned to say on the stand that morning, and that up until then, he thought the tiara had been cremated.

Scott countered that there was no way he could address the tiara with June—or question any of these grieving witnesses—without (I can’t remember exactly how he phrased it, but this is what I wrote in my court notes, so I’m not quoting here) looking like a dick.

Next time: the very first defense witness of the entire trial.

Penalty Phase – Prosecution Witnesses

After opening arguments in the penalty phase of Daniel’s trial, it was time for the prosecution witnesses.

Miles Foltz

The first witness was Sam Herr’s best friend, fellow combat veteran Miles Foltz.

Okay, if you are Matt Murphy, and it’s your goal to make the jury hate Daniel Wozniak, then Miles Foltz is a dream witness. Here was this tough looking solider guy who couldn’t stop his voice from cracking with emotion while he talked about his best friend Sam and how they were stationed together at Camp Keating in Afghanistan. Miles opened up about the daily dangers they faced during that time in “the fish bowl,” and how they joked about their bullet dodging skills.

“No matter where we’d go, we’d always get shot at, but they never got us,” Miles Foltz choked out.  It was during their time at Camp Keating that Sam accrued quite a bit of combat pay, which all went into the bank because there was, “no place to spend your money.”

Sam and Miles had even made a “we’ll be each other’s best man” plan for when either of them got married, but when Miles Foltz did get married, his friend Sam wasn’t there.  He had survived combat only to be was murdered after coming home. Sam’s dad Steve Herr stood in for his son as the best man at Miles wedding.

Remember the end of the last post, when I told you to bring tissues..

The defense didn’t have many questions for Miles during the cross, but Scott Sanders asked him if he’d met Rachel Buffet and if she had ever made any comments about having an issue with a loan shark. Yes and yes.  And during the re-cross, we learned this made him immediately suspicious of Rachel and Daniel.  That’s one of the reasons Miles contacted the police and Steve Herr when Sam went missing.

I had no idea that the term “loan shark” was still in use until this trial. The expression seems so Jimmy Cagney/Turner Classic Movies.

When the grief-stricken Miles Foltz left the stand, Sam’s parents embraced him.  The prosecution could have stopped right there and still easily convinced the jury to choose the death penalty. But they did not.

Steve Herr

The next witness for the prosecution: Steve Herr

Steve Herr (who pronounces his name like “hair”) is easily recognizable with his grey hair and blazer. During the hearings, he always wore jeans, but he switched to khakis during the actual trial.

I’ve spoken with Steve on a few occasions and overheard him talking on many others. He is a chatty guy who has remained personable throughout this nightmare. All the media people know him.  He greets with hugs and handshakes and smiles. This man who could be a “grandfather type” from central casting won’t have that opportunity now, because his only child was murdered.

Sam grew up in California, near Magic Mountain.  Without going into specifics, Steve Herr admitted that his son had gotten into some trouble when he was younger, but Sam had made a complete turnaround after joining the Army.  “The event,” as Steve referred to Sam’s killing, happened right before finishing his first year of college.

Steve Herr’s testimony was gut-wrenching.  He often apologized about “rambling on,” as anger and frustration poured out him while he jumped from point to point.

When he found Julie’s body in Sam’s apartment, he called 911 immediately and was positive that his son hadn’t done it.

  • When he found Julie’s body in Sam’s apartment, he called 911 immediately and was positive that his son hadn’t done it.
  • “I wanted to find the MF who did this!”
  • For reasons that were not explained, he’d had a deep fear that Sam would be dismembered, and then he found that to be the case.
  • On his son’s birthday, he was praying that they find Sam’s head so they could give him a proper burial.
  • “The worst thing you can ask of a man is to feel helpless,” he stated about not protecting his only son.
  • He talked about his wife Raquel and how sad she looks when she sees people with their children.
  • Steve Herr said of seeing Sam at his funeral that he “never want(s) to forget seeing (his) son all sewed up.” He never wants to forget the evil.
  • Even though Steve didn’t personally witness the dismemberment of Sam’s body, he can’t stop picturing Daniel “hacking and sawing” his son.

The human mind is fascinating.  I don’t doubt what happened, but I’m personally not able to picture the man I know as my friend doing those horrific actions. Truth is, I have tried, actually, but the mental image morphs into him being on-stage and waving his arms around during a musical number.  I probably just don’t want to be able to “see” it, you know? It’s easier to be his friend that way.

 When Steve Herr finished testifying, the defense chose to not ask any cross-examination questions.  That seemed like the smart choice.  Sometimes I feel like Steve might dislike Scott Sanders as much as he does Daniel Wozniak.

Raquel Herr

The next witness up was Sam’s mother, Raquel Herr.

This was the first time the jury would hear from Sam’s mom. Unlike Steve, she wasn’t an actual witness in the criminal case.

Raquel said that even though she had been told she could not have children, she was blessed with her only child when she was 35.  Sam was her “prince,” she told the jury, and while the police and her husband were searching for Sam, her fear and anxiety caused to her to be bedridden for six days.

At one point, the judge had to ask Raquel to slow down for the court reporter.  She apologized to the jury that her emotions and Spanish accent were making her difficult to understand.

Raquel Herr said she has God and her faith, and she doesn’t want to be angry. She wasn’t on the stand for long, but her impact was powerful.

Again, there was no cross-examination by the defense.

Miriam Nortman

After Raquel Herr, her twin sister, Miriam Nortman, took the stand.

Sam’s aunt, the self-proclaimed “firecracker” in the family, was overwrought as she explained how difficult it was to see her sister suffer. She spoke of the joy felt by their entire family when Sam was born. But now Miriam’s own children and grandchildren are a constant reminder of what her poor sister lost when Sam was killed.

Her anger and sadness boiled over as she explained that when she thinks about her nephew being dismembered, it makes her feel like her own arm, leg and head were being cut off.

Again, the defense made the smart choice of not cross-examining the witness.  Why upset these people more, right? There is the stereotype of the ruthless defense attorney who will do anything to free a client, but I just don’t think that is Scott Sanders.  He seems like a guy who just cares a lot about the law and following it to the letter.

The Kibuishi Family

The next group of witnesses would be members of Julie’s family, with Taka Kibuishi, Julie’s older brother, called first.

This is not to belittle Sam’s murder, but just for me personally, the murder of Julie has always been the most heartbreaking in this crime. She just seemed like such a sweet and defenseless innocent.  There really wasn’t a huge age difference between Sam and Julie, but Sam had seen so much of the world and he had faced death before. It’s like he’d at least had the opportunity to live, but she was just getting started.  Also, she was a girl.  Yup, I have a double standard there.  Anyway, Daniel knows that I am particularly sickened by the murder of Julie. I don’t mince words with him.  He knows that I am his friend, but I won’t ever forget why he is where he is.

As you probably all know, Julie had been wearing a princess tiara when she was shot twice in the head.  It’s a small element to the story, but its symbolism is gut-wrenching.  She still lived at home with her parents, she had a Taylor Swift ringtone, and she was wearing a tiara when she was murdered.  Julie was wearing that tiara because her brother Taka had given it to her over dinner.  She had just been asked by Taka and his fiancée to be a bridesmaid in their wedding.

Have you notices that there are a lot of weddings in this story: Taka’s, Miles’ and Rachel and Daniel’s?

Taka continued by saying they’d gone out to a restaurant that evening to celebrate and “everything was great.”  Six months later, when the police returned Julie’s car to her family, they would find the leftover Thai food that had been sitting in it since that dinner.

Taka Kibuishi described the closeness of his family.  He talked about how the two older Kibuishi brothers always looked out for the two younger sisters.  There was help with studying and creating job resumes.  Taka had even grilled Julie about her relationship with Sam, who Julie had insisted was just like another big brother.

Julie Kibuishi was sweet, artistic, talkative and a great dancer.  The arts high school that she’d attended is very close to the Santa Ana courthouse, so the Kibuishi family is constantly reminded of happier times whenever they return to this neighborhood.

I have a personal connection to that arts school.  The kids there are amazing.  After a rigorous academic school day, they spend an extra three hours a day taking classes focused entirely on their artistic discipline.

Taka’s love for his little sister was undeniable as he broke down on the stand, beating himself up for not stopping her from going to Sam’s apartment that fateful night.  “I had so many chances to try to stop her,” he lamented. And Julie’s murder has caused so much stress and grief for this very private family.

His anger flared as he described Daniel Wozniak as a disgusting monster who had disrespected his beautiful sister just to use her as a decoy.

You know the expression, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house?” Well, there wasn’t. 

The defense did not cross examine this witness either.

At that point, Judge Conley decided to break for the day.

As I watched the jury file out of the courtroom, noticeably moved by Taka’s words, the expression “another nail in the coffin” seemed fitting in describing Daniel’s fate.

Up Next: More Prosecution Witnesses…

In the next post, I’ll continue with the prosecution witnesses and you’ll get to hear the defense’s argument for giving Daniel life without the possibility of parole.

If you haven’t been following the story in the news, Daniel’s sentencing hearing has been re-scheduled for May.  Scott Sanders is filing a brief to have the death penalty removed in Daniel’s case.