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Ruling Upholds Marital Privilege in '84 Killings

Appeal: Court reverses judge's order, says wife cannot be forced to testify against husband despite 17-year estrangement.

November 09, 2001|JEAN GUCCIONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A wife cannot be compelled to testify against her husband even if the couple have lived apart for 17 years, a state appellate court has ruled.

The decision reverses a trial court judge's order that would have forced Susan Jurcoane to testify against her husband, Josif, at his preliminary hearing. He is charged with killing two people at an Antelope Valley cherry farm on July 4, 1984.

After the shootings, Josif Jurcoane, now 51, left his wife and three young children and fled to Mexico, where he lived with another woman, prosecutors said.

He was extradited earlier this year. At Jurcoane's preliminary hearing, Deputy Dist. Atty. Rouman Ebrahim called Susan Jurcoane as a key prosecution witness, but she refused to testify, asserting her marital privilege.

The trial judge, Carol S. Koppel, had ruled that the privilege did not apply in this case because Susan and Josif Jurcoane's 25-year marriage was "moribund."

But the 2nd District Court of Appeal, in a ruling Wednesday, found that no such exception exists and that the trial court cannot create one.

State law "does not contain an exception for marriages where the parties have not lived together for a certain time, or where the marriage . . . is no longer viable or intact," Justice Reuben A. Ortega wrote. Appellate Justices Miriam A. Vogel and Robert M. Mallano concurred in the 17-page opinion.

The Jurcoanes were married in 1976 and never divorced, despite living apart for most of their married life. Under state law, the only way to end a marriage is through the death of one spouse, divorce or an annulment.

Accepting Susan Jurcoane's legal arguments, the court said state law is clear and that only the Legislature can create exceptions.

Susan Jurcoane's lawyer, Joseph A. Pertel, said prosecutors can seek changes in the law.

To have ruled otherwise, the court "would have opened the door into the merits of any marital relationship," Pertel said.

A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office declined to comment.

In their appellate brief, prosecutors said Jurcoane's reunion with his family was "not a happy homecoming, motivated by love for [Susan Jurcoane] and his three abandoned children, but by the laws of extradition which exist between this country and Mexico."

They said the Jurcoanes' marriage "continued to exist only by virtue of the existence of a marriage license and nothing more."

Since his April 27 arrest, Josif Jurcoane has been held without bail at the North County Correctional Facility in Saugus. He is charged in the killings of Lloyd "Bill" Bryden, 47, and Bryden's live-in girlfriend, Alice B. McCannel, 39.

Prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty as a condition of Jurcoane's extradition from Mexico. According to prosecutors, Jurcoane worked for a few years in the early 1980s as a farmhand and mechanic and lived on Bryden's Mountain Brook Ranch in Valyermo, near Palmdale.

Around Memorial Day 1984, Bryden fired Jurcoane and ordered him to move off the property.

On July 4, Susan Jurcoane and McCannel had an argument.

When Susan told her husband about it, he grabbed his shotgun and shells and drove off in his truck, authorities said. A few minutes later, Susan told police, she heard three or four shots and then Josif Jurcoane came home.

Police reports stated that Jurcoane's husband had told her, "Susan, I shot them."

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