Death Penalty for Murder for Insurance: Insurance Fraud Is NOT A Victimless Crime

Death Penalty for Murder for Insurance: Insurance Fraud Is NOT A Victimless Crime

The plaintiffs’ bar, many members of the public, the courts, police and prosecutors believe that insurance fraud is a victimless crime since only an impersonal, rich and disliked corporation is harmed. The California Supreme Court, in a 51 page opinion, found otherwise in People v. Rodriguez, S122123 (Cal. 02/20/2014) [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers].

A jury convicted defendant Angelina Rodriguez of the first degree murder of her husband, Jose Francisco Rodriguez, under the special circumstances of murder by administering poison and murder for financial gain, and of one count of attempting to dissuade a witness. After a penalty trial, at which the prosecution presented evidence that defendant had also murdered her infant daughter several years previously to collect on an insurance policy, the jury returned a verdict of death.

THE FACTS

The evidence showed that in September 2000, on her second attempt, defendant fatally poisoned her husband, Jose Francisco Rodriguez, by giving him drinks containing oleander and antifreeze in order to collect on a life insurance policy she had insisted the two take out a few months earlier.

Montebello Police Officer Stephen Sharpe, responding to a call from defendant’s home at 837 Marconi Street, found Frank’s body lying facedown on the carpet in the bedroom.

At 10:17 a.m., the morning Frank died, defendant called Marracino, the life insurance agent, and left a message for him to call her back. When he returned her call a short time later, she reported her husband’s death and inquired about getting the $250,000 payment on the policy on Frank’s life.

On September 14, the case was referred to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and assigned to Detective Brian Steinwand and Sergeant Joe Holmes. Detective Steinwand testified that defendant had been a suspect in Frank’s death from the beginning, but they did not tell her that. They pretended to believe her story that someone at Angel Gate Academy had poisoned Frank in order to try to get her to talk and provide information. Dr. Richard Clark, a toxicologist with the poison center at the University of California, San Diego, testified that ethylene glycol is poisonous but tends to taste sweet and can easily be mixed with Gatorade. Oleander, commonly found along Southern California freeways, is also poisonous. It can be served as a tea and mixed with another liquid to disguise its bitter taste.

After examining documents in the case, Dr. Clark opined that Frank had died of ethylene glycol poisoning. Specimens from his body contained five and six times as much of the chemical as is needed to kill. After defendant’s arrest, the investigators searched her Paso Robles home pursuant to a search warrant. They found in her purse a piece of paper containing numbers and computations, apparently calculations regarding how she would spend the insurance money plus accumulated interest that she expected to receive, and a napkin on which was written the sheriff’s fax number, the number to which the anonymous fax received by Sergeant Holmes had been sent.

On September 18, 1993, defendant’s 13-month-old daughter Alicia F. (Autumn’s younger sister) choked to death on a pacifier manufactured by the Gerber Products Company (Gerber) in her crib in the family’s home in Lompoc. Defendant’s husband at the time, Thomas F. (Thomas), Alicia’s father, was on a business trip, and defendant was the only adult in the house when Alicia died.

Two months before the baby died by choking on a pacifier, defendant had insured the baby’s life for $50,000, and named herself as the primary beneficiary. Defendant did not name Thomas as a beneficiary and did not tell him about the policy until after the baby had died. On October 22, 1993, the insurance company paid the $50,000, plus interest. The defendant also sued the manufacturer of the pacifier and received a report from an expert, never disclosed to the manufacturer, that the fracture he observed between the two pieces could not have been caused either by a baby chewing through the pacifier or a baby’s repeated sucking action. Based on his visual and microscopic examination of the pacifier, he believed that “some external trauma or tool was responsible for failing this nipple.” Keeping that report secret the defendant sued the manufacturer and eventually received a settlement of approximately $750,000.00.

ANALYSIS

Defendant contended the presentation of the technical evidence violated her confrontation rights. Specifically, she challenges the testimony that the victim’s body contained oleander and ethylene glycol, and Dr. Clark’s opinion testimony. The California Supreme Court concluded that the contention lacked merit. Indeed, it is not clear exactly what confrontation defendant claims she was denied. Defendant contends the evidence was insufficient for the jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that she murdered her daughter. Because the question concerns the admissibility of evidence, it also comes within the trial court’s discretion and the Supreme Court found the discretion was not abused.

The Supreme Court noted that there was ample evidence that defendant murdered her daughter. About two months before Alicia died, defendant took out life insurance on the baby without telling her then husband, the baby’s father, and named only herself the primary beneficiary. This circumstance alone strongly suggests she murdered her daughter to collect the life insurance proceeds, just as she later murdered her husband to collect on a life insurance policy that she insisted he take out.

The trial court cited defendant’s actions, rather than mere words. After defendant tried to kill her husband by loosening the gas valves, she tried a second time, giving him enough oleander to send him to the emergency room. Her husband became very ill but did not die. Rather than feel remorse for what she put him through, she tried a third time, this time giving him several times the amount of poison (both oleander and antifreeze) needed to kill him. These actions overtly showed this was truly a remorseless murder or, as the court put it, among the “coldest” of killings. These were relevant aggravating circumstances of the crime.

ZALMA OPINION

I have preached until I was blue in the face that insurance fraud is not a victimless crime. Insurers are victims as, in this case, was the insurer that paid $50,000 for the death of the child and the insurer who paid $750,000 for the same death in a wrongful death case because the defendant concealed the report of the expert that showed the pacifier was cut with a tool and was not the result of a product defect. The defendant killed her child and her second husband solely to obtain the benefits of the insurance that she acquired. She even attempted to kill a witness who was to testified against her.

Ms. Rodriguez was a cold blooded killer. The victims of her crimes were her child, her husband, and two or more insurers. She was properly sentenced to death and to make it clear it took the California Supreme Court more than 50 pages to defeat all of her arguments.

It is time that the various states and the federal government take insurance fraud seriously and make it more difficult to succeed. Ms. Rodriguez’ husband might have survived if there was a serious and thorough investigation into the death of the child and Ms. Rodriguez was prosecuted for that crime rather than allowing her to recover $800,000 for the murder of the child.

    By Barry Zalma, Attorney and Consultant

Reprinted with Permission from Zalma on Insurance, (c) 2013, Barry Zalma.

Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, is a California attorney who limits his practice to consultation regarding insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and fraud and acting as a mediator or arbitrator on insurance disputes. Mr. Zalma serves as a consultant and expert almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He founded Zalma Insurance Consultants in 2001 and serves as its only consultant. He recently published the e-books, "Zalma on Rescission in California - 2013"; "Random Thoughts on Insurance" containing posts from this blog; "Zalma on Insurance;" "Murder and Insurance Don't Mix;" “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose — 2011,” “Zalma on Diminution in Value Damages,” “Arson for Profit” and “Zalma on California Claims Regulations,” and others that are available at Zalma Books.

Mr. Zalma can be contacted at Barry Zalma or zalma@zalma.com, and you can access his free "Zalma on Insurance Fraud" newsletter at Zalma’s Insurance Fraud Letter.

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