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O.C. Murder Case Appeal Cites Media Fabrications

An Anaheim woman serving life for two slayings says her lawyer was barred from challenging a reporter who testified against her.

May 15, 2004|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

An Anaheim woman serving a life sentence for the 1999 slaying of a couple on a lonely stretch of south Orange County's Ortega Highway has appealed her conviction, arguing that her attorney was not allowed to adequately cross-examine a newspaper reporter who testified against her.

Citing numerous examples of misdeeds by the media, Adriana Vasco's appeal contends that the court erred in not allowing aggressive questioning of Bill Rams, a former Orange County Register reporter whose testimony she believes was critical to the prosecution's case.

In her appeal, filed April 6 in California's 4th Appellate District Court, Vasco said the court assumed that Rams' integrity was beyond reproach.

"Recent revelations about the media suggest the contrary," says the appeal, citing the New York Times' Jayson Blair, New Republic's Stephen Glass, USA Today's Jack Kelley and other former reporters believed to have fabricated or plagiarized stories.

"There are indications of an epidemic of dishonest journalism in American media," the appeal said. "The offending reporters work for papers as large as the Chicago Tribune and as small as the Sedalia Democrat in Missouri.... "

Jim Grossberg, an attorney representing Rams and the Register, said the newspaper stands by its stories and the reporter's testimony.

"I don't think Vasco's brief cites any specific evidence suggesting that Bill Rams or the Register were inaccurate or dishonest in their reporting," he said. "The Register and Bill can't speak on behalf of the entire news media. The Register's position is that it will not tolerate dishonest reporting and will not tolerate having reporters on its staff who are dishonest, and I don't know of any reason the paper believes that to be the case in the matter of this coverage."

The process by which Rams ended up testifying in the case was long and arduous.

It began five years ago when police discovered the bullet-riddled bodies of Dr. Kenneth Stahl, a 57-year-old Huntington Beach anesthesiologist, and his wife, optometrist Carolyn Oppy-Stahl, 44, in the couple's car parked at the side of Ortega Highway with its engine running. For more than a year, the case baffled detectives, who were left with little physical evidence and no apparent motive for the execution-style slayings. Eventually, however, they were able to trace calls made on Stahl's cell phone to Vasco, a medical secretary with whom, it turned out, he'd had a long affair.

During the trial, prosecutors maintained that Vasco, 35, had plotted with Stahl to kill his wife and helped him hire another boyfriend of hers, Dennis Early Godley, 32, to be the triggerman.

In a murder scenario at which Vasco was present, they said, Godley ended up killing the doctor too, either out of jealousy or to eliminate a witness.

The defense portrayed Vasco as a weak and emotionally shattered woman incapable of executing such a complicated and ruthless murder scheme. Instead, they said, she was dominated and manipulated by Stahl and Godley, whose trial in the case is pending.

What many considered the most intriguing bit of evidence, however, was a confession Vasco allegedly offered to deputies after her arrest, which a judge had ruled inadmissible because it was coerced.

Without the confession, prosecutors relied heavily on the testimony of Rams, who had published a jailhouse interview in which Vasco revealed some knowledge of the plot.

Though the Register sought to quash Rams' subpoena under the California Shield Law, which protects journalists from revealing their unpublished notes and sources, the judge in the case, Francisco P. Briseno, ruled that Rams had to testify, but only on what appeared in print. Thus, the defense maintains in its appeal, Vasco's attorney was not allowed to ask about 70 questions the defense believed would have undermined the reporter's credibility.

"If he's going to be allowed to invoke the shield law as to matters that were not published, then, basically, he's subject to cross-examination," Vasco's attorney, Mark Alan Hart, said in an interview Friday.

By evoking the media's recent history of abuse, Hart said, "I am reminding the court that just because it's printed in a newspaper doesn't make it necessarily correct ... reporters who have good reputations don't always get it right."

Media experts say they aren't seeing a rash of such challenges after the Jayson Blair and other media-abuse cases. Rather than being used to challenge the shield law, said Roger Myers, chief counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, the cases are more often "cited by lawyers in retraction demands and lawsuits against the media."

Vasco's appeal, he said, "sounds like a fishing expedition to me. This is a good example of how those rare and unusual circumstances [such as the Blair case] are being mis-cited."

A more basic problem, however, may be that Rams was compelled to testify at all, another lawyer said. "This is like a law-school exam question," said Peter Scheer, the coalition's executive director. "I think that the defense has an interesting and rather strong claim here -- on the other hand, they shouldn't have had it at all because the government shouldn't have been allowed to pierce the shield."

Vasco's appeal is right about at least one thing, Scheer said: "I think the ordinary presumption that used to apply -- that reporters, at least, are trying to tell the truth -- isn't quite as strong as it used to be."

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