Murder conviction mired in legal nuance
A 40-page appeals court decision reviewing the conviction of Lisa Platz – the woman sentenced to life in prison for the death of her 9-year-old daughter in South Lake Tahoe – denied her a retrial, but acknowledged the case was challenging from the get-go for the defense.
In the Feb. 15 decision, the third Appellate District Court of California ruled Platz was rightly convicted but not without a series of unfortunate events and past court decisions leading to her time behind bars.
A South Lake Tahoe jury originally convicted Platz in 2003, roughly two years after Rebbeca Aramburo was found dead in a tent shared by Platz and her boyfriend, James Csucsai, in a standoff with authorities at Campground by the Lake. She was 33 years old when convicted.
Although the 12-person jury didn’t agree on whether Platz actually wielded the military knife used to slash her daughter’s throat, a law called the felony-murder rule left the defense with little wiggle room to protect Platz from prison.
The ruling affirmed by Justice Vance Raye and concurred by Acting Presiding Justice Richard Sims and Justice M. Kathleen Butz included the belief that Platz, described as a good, loving mother by many accounts, was doomed once Rebbeca was kidnapped in Washington in August 2001. She was killed the following month.
Csucsai, in the time leading to trial, hanged himself in jail, leaving Platz to face the death of her child alone.
Platz and Csucsai, armed with handguns, took Rebbeca from her stepmother, Angelina Haggard. The early portions of the decision, which recounted factual events before and after Rebbeca’s death, stated: “Rebbeca ran to her mother and hugged her after Lisa told her to get into the car.”
What constitutes kidnapping?
Washington law dictates a person under the age of 16 “cannot consent or acquiesce to a taking,” the decision read.
Defense attorneys Bruce Cohen and Rick Meyer placed the kidnapping at the forefront of their arguments. Cohen, Platz’s attorney handling the appeal, and Meyer, El Dorado County Public Defender who represented Platz at trial, said since Platz was tried in California, which has no age limit in determining consent in a taking, a jury should decide whether Rebbeca could give permission.
Since El Dorado County has prosecuted children around Rebbeca’s age on crimes and weighs their opinion on custody disputes, Meyer asserted the reverse should also be true.
“I have the greatest respect for the fact that the appellate court took the time to review all the evidence and really get a sense of what happened in this case,” Meyer stated. “I disagree with their conclusions on the law. The evidence that Rebbeca wanted to be with her mother was overwhelming. Lisa did violate a restraining order when she took Rebbeca. But I think that the California Supreme Court will decide that under California law, the jury should have been allowed to decide whether Rebbeca had consented, and that this is a defense to kidnapping in California.”
In the decision the justices determined kidnapping did take place, swatted down the consent issue, acknowledged the uphill battle and quality of the trial defense, and showed sympathy for Platz.
“Defendant complains that the court’s interpretation of California’s kidnapping statute, when coupled with the felony-murder rule and the alleged special circumstance (of kidnapping), left the impression the jury had nothing to decide. We agree,” the decision read. “While the prosecution’s theory that Lisa killed her daughter was riddled with holes and inconsistencies, the defense had little, if any, ammunition to fight the much less emphasized theory of felony murder. Indeed, the district attorney emphasized the breadth and scope of the felony-murder rule by pointing out to the jury that once Lisa kidnapped her daughter in Washington, she would be liable for the child’s death even if ‘Rebbeca had been bitten by a rabid squirrel and died of rabies.'”
McGeorge School of Law professor David Miller found a weakness in the decision after a review of it upon request by a reporter. Miller felt the five-week span between the time of the Washington kidnapping and time of the campground standoff eroded the crime of kidnapping.
Even if the adults were armed with weapons but in a place of safety a significant amount of time after Rebbeca’s abduction, Miller said he has trouble determining the application of kidnapping, even calling it at one point “far fetched.”
“To me the extension of the felony-murder (rule) for a long period of time is the source of real question,” Miller said.
El Dorado County District Attorney Gary Lacy, who led the prosecution in the criminal trial, disagreed. He said kidnapping is a type of “continuing” crime.
Rebbeca, who told various counselors she preferred to live with her mother after full custody was granted to father Jose Aramburo after a faulty family court decision, consenting was used by Cohen and Meyer.
It was a stance picked apart by the appellate justices.
“In Lisa’s view, her 9-year-old daughter’s preference to live with her translated into an implied consent to live on the run, chased by the FBI and moving from campground to campground across the country,” the decision stated.
It continued: “A young child in these circumstances has no capacity to consent to a kidnapping, no matter how much she loves her mother or how little she fears being shot, stabbed or slashed.”
Miller, the law professor, thought the consent issue would be moot in any court.
“I don’t think under any law she’s old enough to consent to anything,” he said.
For consent to be considered by a jury, and thus under California law, would be against the California kidnapping statute, Lacy said.
“The legislature passed that, that is the law of California and Mr. Meyer trying to that was just an improper approach,” Lacy said.
But Cohen said the law should be more specific, citing the hypothetical example if Rebbeca was taken from not Washington, but Iraq or another foreign country.
Before trial Lacy said he tried to convince Meyer of the fruitlessness of defending Platz against the felony-murder rule in the possibility of a plea bargain. Lacy said he spent “many, many hours of legal research” and was certain he could put Meyer in a corner during trial.
Lacy also thought the California State Supreme Court wouldn’t accept the case for review. Cases are accepted in decisions not agreed on by the state justices.
Cohen, a Harvard law graduate who mostly handles appeals on death-penalty cases that skip the appellate court and go directly to the Supreme Court, said Platz would be his first case to go that route. The state Supreme Court, he said, accepts only 2 percent of the cases decided by the appellate court, or roughly 100 cases.
A brief to the Supreme Court lobbying justices to review the case is due in about 40 days, Cohen said.
“It certainly is an issue that court could be interested in, and of course it has a lot of fairness issues to go along with it,” he said.
Cohen said he has talked to Platz about the appellate court’s decision.
“Well, she’s very upset,” he said. “I mean her sentence is life without parole. It’s forever. (Prison) is not a fun place to be.”
Lisa Platz was charged with a special circumstance of kidnapping, section 207 (d) of the California penal code. Since a jury found her guilty of kidnapping her 9-year-old daughter who later was killed, Platz was convicted of her daughter’s murder, sending her to prison on a sentence of life in prison. The kidnapping statute reads: “Every person who, being out of this state, abducts or takes by force or fraud any person contrary to the law of the place where that act is committed, and brings, sends or conveys that person within the limits thereof, is guilty of kidnapping.”
The decision by the Third Appellate District court is available to view under the opinions section of the Web site, http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/courts/courtsofappeal/3rdDistrict/
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