When jurors begin deliberations today in the murder-for-hire case involving a slain Huntington Beach doctor and his wife, they will be forced to reconcile two very different portraits of the defendant, Adriana Vasco.
Throughout a week of testimony, prosecutors have portrayed the 35-year-old as manipulative and dangerous, a woman who had an affair with Dr. Kenneth Stahl and then plotted with her other boyfriend to kill Stahl and his wife, Carolyn Oppy-Stahl -- a woman Vasco referred to as a "witch."
The defense says Vasco is a weak and emotionally shattered woman who was dominated and manipulated by Stahl, as well as the accused triggerman -- who allegedly swaggered around with a shotgun under his trench coat. Vasco, according to defense lawyer Robert M. Viefhaus, is a woman incapable of executing such a complicated and ruthless murder scheme.
But what jurors won't be considering today is perhaps the case's most intriguing piece of evidence: a confession Vasco allegedly offered to sheriff's deputies following her arrest.
A previous judge ruled that the confession was inadmissible because it was coerced and violated Vasco's constitutional rights. Detectives had manipulated a "vulnerable" woman by playing on her fears about the safety of her children, the judge said.
Loss of the confession has complicated the efforts of prosecutors. The judge who barred the statements expressed doubts later that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict Vasco. Without the confession, the prosecution relied on an interview Vasco gave to the Orange County Register, in which she spoke of her knowledge of the plot. In the end, however, the case is likely to come down to who the jury believes Vasco is.
Often during the trial, Vasco has broken into tears when listening to the details of Kenneth Stahl's and Carolyn Oppy-Stahl's deaths. On more than one occasion, Judge Francisco Briseno has excused the jury so that a tearful and shaking Vasco could compose herself during testimony.
Just such a moment occurred on the last day of testimony Wednesday, when her lawyer questioned her about Oppy-Stahl's death. "It's hard to talk about her," Vasco said, wiping tears from her eyes, her round face framed by long black hair. "I don't like to think about her because I hurt her."
Vasco's lawyer insists that she suffers from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder and battered-women's syndrome. Born of a rape in her native Mexico, Vasco reportedly suffered a string of abusive relationships and turned to alcohol and drugs for solace, according to testimony.
Prosecutors say that Vasco, a medical secretary, carried on an affair of many years with 57-year-old Kenneth Stahl, an anesthesiologist. They say that Vasco and Stahl shared an extreme distaste for Oppy-Stahl, 44, and that she helped the doctor find someone who would kill his wife for $30,000 and she also helped scout a murder site. When asked by Stahl if she knew anyone who could "take care of" his wife, Vasco allegedly suggested Dennis Godley, another boyfriend and a handyman at Vasco's Anaheim apartment complex.
Godley will face a murder trial next year in connection with the case; he has also pleaded not guilty.
Instead of killing only Kenneth Stahl's wife as the couple sat in an idling car on Ortega Highway in November 1999, the gunman turned his .357-caliber magnum on the doctor as well, prosecutors say.
The couple's bullet-riddled bodies were discovered later that night by a security guard.
Taking the stand in her own defense, Vasco said she was manipulated into helping Stahl arrange for the killing but insisted she was in a state of denial.
Speaking in a soft voice, Vasco told jurors that Godley threatened to kill her and harm her children if she ever spoke of the plot.
She said that even though she heard the men discussing the plan on the telephone and even transferred an envelope of cash from Stahl to Godley, she denied that the killing would ever occur.
"I didn't believe any of this was going to happen," Vasco said.
In a lengthy cross examination Wednesday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Dennis Conway disputed the notion that she was cowed by Godley and Stahl. "You're not the type of woman where men can just march into your life and control you," Conway said.
Vasco denied the characterization but agreed with the prosecutor on another point.
"If you hadn't introduced Godley to Ken and his wife, they would still be alive, right?" Conway asked Vasco.
"Yes," Vasco responded, and broke into tears.
Times staff writer Mai Tran contributed to this report.