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Ailing Woman Is Sentenced in Slaying

July 22, 1987|ERIC BAILEY | Times Staff Writer

A Vista Superior Court judge on Tuesday sentenced Evanna Cavanaugh, a Sunday school teacher and one-time Vista crime commissioner, to a year in jail for the 1985 shooting death of her brother. But he delayed imposition of the sentence for six months.

As more than 50 friends and supporters of the Vista community leader looked on, Judge Herbert Hoffman ruled that Cavanaugh should remain free until late January because of her failing health.

Cavanaugh, 49, has breast cancer, and has undergone chemotherapy, radiation treatments and surgery during the last two years. Medical experts say patients like Cavanaugh, with advanced stages of the disease, are given about a year to live.

"This is a difficult case," Hoffman said in announcing his ruling. "There are very substantial countervailing factors."

Community Service Ordered

In addition to sentencing Cavanaugh to a year in jail and three years of probation, Hoffman ordered the mother of four to perform 400 hours of community service at an area convalescent home or day-care center. The judge will review her case Jan. 21 to determine if Cavanaugh's medical condition would allow imposition of the jail sentence.

Charles Goldberg, Cavanaugh's attorney, commended the judge and expressed hope that Hoffman would ultimately decide that the Vista woman should remain free.

"I think it was a fair and appropriate sentence under the circumstances," Goldberg said, adding that he was confident that the judge will see "no purpose for further incarceration" of Cavanaugh when the matter is reviewed in six months.

Wade Abbott, the deputy district attorney who handled the case, agreed that Cavanaugh probably will not be jailed.

"I kind of suspect that's what will come to pass," Abbott said. "Judge Hoffman showed real concern toward imposing a compassionate sentence. Given the lady's medical condition, I can certainly understand why he did that."

In April, Cavanaugh pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter for gunning down her 44-year-old brother, Charles Phegley, who had a history of mental illness and violent behavior toward family members.

The shooting occurred at their mother's Leucadia home in November, 1985, after Cavanaugh and her brother became embroiled in an argument over $34 from a piece of rental property they owned jointly.

While prosecutors charged Cavanaugh with first-degree murder in the case, Goldberg insisted she shot Phegley in self-defense. The defense attorney argued that Cavanaugh brought a loaded .38-caliber pistol to her mother's home so the elderly woman could protect herself from Phegley, who was living in a guest house on the property.

Cavanaugh sat stoically next to her attorneys as Hoffman announced his decision Tuesday. When the judge was finished, she took a few deep breaths then rose and embraced her attorneys, Goldberg and Patrick Hall. She then reached over and shook Abbott's hand.

"Good luck to you, Mrs. Cavanaugh," the prosecutor said.

As Cavanaugh walked from the courtroom, numerous friends greeted her, offering hugs and words of support. Cavanaugh's husband, Wayne, led her down the courthouse corridors away from the throng. Nudging aside a reporter, he said Cavanaugh had no comment for the press.

'I'll Always Be Sorry'

During Tuesday's hearing, however, Cavanaugh rose briefly to tell Hoffman that she had shot Phegley in self-defense.

"Even though this was self-defense, it doesn't take away from the grief," she said. "I'll always be sorry it happened."

The case attracted widespread attention in part because of an unusual tape Cavanaugh had made on the night of the shooting with a microcassette recorder she had tucked inside her purse.

That tape, along with recordings of a frantic call Cavanaugh made to a 911 operator after the incident and of her confession at the Vista sheriff's station, became the center of a controversy over the department's handling of the investigation.

Goldberg won pretrial motions to suppress the tape-recorded confession and Cavanaugh's microcassette tape. But he was unsuccessful in his attempts to have the murder charge thrown out on grounds that deputies entered the shooting scene illegally and lied about it later.

Although Hoffman denied a motion to suppress key evidence, including the 911 call, the judge railed long and hard during the pretrial hearings about "police misconduct" during the investigation.

On Tuesday, Goldberg argued for leniency in the case, noting that a forensic scientist hired by the defense team had determined that a bullet wound to Phegley's left hand indicated he was striking at Cavanaugh when she fired one of five rounds at her brother.

He also said that Phegley had gone into a rage two months before and struck Cavanaugh in the face and neck, a signal that "his illness had progressed" to an alarming stage.

"I don't think anyone has any doubt that Mrs. Cavanaugh was in fear," Goldberg said. "What proceeded after that was hysteria."

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