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The People v. David Harrison Buzzetta


September 30, 2011


(Super. Ct. No. 62089830)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Robie, J.

P. v. Buzzetta



California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115(a), prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b). This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.

Convicted of murdering his stepfather, Paul Bonomo, with a baseball bat and sentenced to 26 years to life in prison, defendant David Harrison Buzzetta appeals, contending the trial court violated his federal constitutional rights by excluding evidence that his mother, Eileen Bonomo,*fn1 and the man with whom she was having an extramarital affair, Brian Stafford, might have been the real killers.

We find no error. While there was evidence Eileen and Stafford might have had a motive to kill the victim, our Supreme Court has made clear that "evidence of mere motive or opportunity to commit the crime in another person, without more, will not suffice to raise a reasonable doubt about a defendant's guilt: there must be direct or circumstantial evidence linking the third person to the actual perpetration of the crime" for evidence of third-party culpability to be admissible. (People v. Hall (1986) 41 Cal.3d 826, 833.) Here, defendant fails to point to any evidence linking Eileen or Stafford to the actual perpetration of the crime. Moreover, defendant has not shown that he had a federal constitutional right to present his third-party culpability theory in the absence of such evidence. Accordingly, we will affirm the judgment.


Defendant was born in 1987 to Eileen and Mark Buzzetta. When defendant was three years old, Eileen married Paul Bonomo. When defendant was 16, the family (which included Eileen and Paul's two children together) moved from San Jose to Roseville.

After they moved to Roseville, defendant's performance in school deteriorated rapidly and he began dressing "very dark" and chose friends Eileen believed were "doing drugs." Eileen believed defendant was doing drugs as well, and she eventually told him he had to leave the house and could not come back until he got help.

In September 2006, after defendant had left the house and was living "around somewhere," Eileen discovered some of her jewelry was missing, as well as defendant's guitar, saxophone, and some electronics. There was no sign of a break-in. Eileen reported the theft to police.

When Eileen next spoke to defendant, he was in Colorado at his father's. She confronted him about the theft of her jewelry and told him he could either turn himself in to the police or "go into a lockdown, 90-day rehab facility." Defendant hung up.

Eventually, defendant "reached bottom" and told Eileen he wanted to come home. She told him he needed to go into "rehab" immediately, which he apparently did. He completed only 28 days of the program, however.

Meanwhile, in mid-January 2007, Eileen and Paul decided to live apart while they "work[ed] things out[]." Eileen moved about a mile away with their two children, while Paul remained in the family home. At the time, Eileen was having an extramarital relationship with Stafford, with whom she worked.

In March 2007, defendant called Eileen, and on the morning of March 16 they had breakfast at a restaurant in Roseville. They mainly discussed having defendant get help, because "[h]is brain seemed pretty . . . fried." When defendant asked if he could stay with Eileen, she said no. She did, however, invite him to his sister's birthday party on Sunday, two days later. He came to the party, where he lay on the floor and stared at the walls. When he asked Eileen if he could stay at her house that night, she again refused, and after he asked for the third time, Paul intervened and told defendant he could stay at the family home for that night only. Defendant "wasn't really happy," but he left with Paul around 9:30 or 10:00 p.m.

Some time between 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. on Monday morning, defendant showed up at the house of Darcy Wolfe, the mother of one of his friends, where he had been sleeping in her son's room or on the couch in the living room. Wolfe's house is approximately three miles from the family home where Paul was living, a distance a healthy person could walk in half an hour. Defendant spent the night on the couch, while Wolfe slept on another couch right next to him.

Around 8:00 a.m. Monday morning, defendant called Eileen and asked to meet her for breakfast. She could not meet him, but they made plans to meet for lunch. He told Eileen he was calling from a friend's house and that he had left Paul's 10 minutes after he got there.

When Eileen met defendant for lunch, his jeans had "dirt marks" all over them, he had an open wound on one of his knuckles, and he smelled like alcohol and cigarettes. Eileen took him to her house so he could shower.

Later that afternoon, defendant told Eileen he wanted a ride to the family home because he had left some items there. She told him that was impossible because he had nothing there. Defendant was "pretty upset" that Eileen would not take him to the house. At some point, defendant told her he was going to go back over to the house, and when she asked him how he intended to get in (because Paul should have been at work), he said the back door was unlocked. After getting more upset and cursing at Eileen because she would not take him to the house, defendant left, walking in a direction that would take him to the house.

Around 4:00 p.m., Eileen went with her other children to her mother's house to pick up a chair; Stafford followed her in his truck, where they were going to put the chair. On the way to her mother's, Eileen continued to worry that defendant was going to do something at the family home, so she decided to go there and check before going home. Stafford followed her.

When she opened the garage door with the garage door opener, she saw Paul's car and thought something was wrong. When she went into the house, she saw a baseball bat at the bottom of the stairs covered in blood. She ran out of the house in horror, and when she pointed back at the house, Stafford ran in.

Inside the house, Stafford saw the bat, then went upstairs where he discovered Paul's body on the floor. He called 911 on his cell phone as he went back outside. While he was on the phone, he saw defendant approaching the house. Stafford stayed with defendant until the police arrived. During that time, neither Stafford nor Eileen told defendant that Paul was dead.

After police arrived on the scene and an officer asked defendant how his stepfather had died, defendant told the officer, "'Someone beat him to death.'"

Defendant later told police he went to the family house with Paul the night before and was there from about 10:00 to 10:45 p.m., before going to his friend's house, during which time he drank two beers and watched television after Paul had gone upstairs.

Police found the blood-covered bat on the floor just outside the kitchen and another baseball bat under the bed in the master bedroom. A single usable latent fingerprint, which belonged to defendant, was found on the bloody bat.

Paul died from being struck in the head with a blunt object at least 20 times.

During a jail visit between Eileen and defendant in May 2007, defendant told Eileen she had "tricked" him. When Eileen told defendant he had taken "Dad's" life, he responded, "I know Mom, I was crying about it and stuff but you told me . . . ." When she told him he needed to "tell them what [he] did," he responded, "I know I just did it for you . . . ."

At some point, defendant wrote a letter to his grandmother in which he wrote, "I miss everyone so much, including Paul. I was out of my mind. I thought everyone wanted me to do what I did. I'm so sorry. I cry and feel so depressed and guilty. I wish I could go back in time."

Defendant was charged with murder with special allegations of lying in wait and use of a deadly weapon. He pled both not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity.

"[A]nticipat[ing] that the defense m[ight] attempt to introduce evidence that . . . Eileen . . . and . . . Stafford, killed Paul," the prosecution moved before trial "to exclude any 'motive' evidence . . . in relation to Eileen . . . ." Specifically, the prosecution sought to exclude evidence of "[i]nsurance proceeds received by Eileen . . . upon the death of her husband" and "[a]n extra-marital affair between Eileen . . . and . . . Stafford." The prosecution argued there was "no physical or other evidence linking either Eileen . . . or . . . Stafford to the murder."

During a pretrial discussion of "character evidence," the prosecutor raised the third-party culpability issue. An extended discussion of the issue ensued. At the court's urging, defense counsel identified the evidence she believed linked Eileen and Stafford to the crime.*fn2 Defense counsel contended the evidence was also admissible to show an inadequate investigation of the crime by police. Later, in a brief, defense counsel asserted much of the evidence was admissible as "bear[ing] directly on credibility issues of the prosecution's chief witnesses (Brian Stafford, Eileen Bonomo, conduct of policy investigation)."

Ultimately, the trial court issued a written ruling on the third-party culpability issue. The court identified four categories of evidence on which defendant sought to rely: (1) life insurance; (2) the extramarital affair between Eileen and Stafford; (3) the 911 call; and (4) crime scene evidence.

The court concluded the evidence Eileen "received about . . . $1.2 million dollars in life insurance benefits" following the victim's death, and that she called the insurance company early the morning following the victim's death, did "not link either [Eileen] or . . . Stafford to the murder," and was evidence only of "possible motive."

As for the evidence Eileen and Stafford were having an extramarital affair, and that they had exchanged text messages "on the evening of March 18th and the early morning hours of March 19th," the trial court likewise concluded that while the affair "could provide a motive for murder," the evidence did "not link [Eileen and Stafford] to perpetration of the actual killing."

With respect to evidence that Stafford twice told the 911 operator that Eileen had found the body, when she had found only the bloody bat, the court concluded "there [wa]s nothing about the call that link[ed Stafford] to the murder."

Finally, as to the opinion of defendant's blood spatter expert (Anita Wonder) that the bat was put somewhere after the killing and then placed near the kitchen after the blood had dried, that the victim had been assaulted in three places, and that the crime scene appeared "'staged,'" the trial court found that this evidence did "not provide a nexus as to who committed the killing."

Based on this analysis, the court concluded that "other than motive, there is nothing that ties or links either [Eileen] or . . . Stafford to perpetration of the actual killing." Accordingly, the court ruled that it would "exclude third party evidence that Eileen . . . or . . . Stafford committed the killing, specifically, . . . evidence that the victim had life insurance or that [Eileen] received life insurance benefits afterwards." Noting, however, that defendant had "the right to thoroughly cross-examine prosecution witnesses for bias and/or motive to fabricate" and that Eileen and Stafford were both "prosecution witnesses," the court specifically permitted defendant to cross-examine them: (1) "concerning the general nature and extent of their relationship as it existed at the time of the crime and [trial]"; (2) "regarding any false or misleading statements either may have made to investigators"; and (3) "about their whereabouts at or about the time of the alleged homicide."

Later, on the issue of a computer journal the victim kept, the trial court noted defendant was seeking to introduce "several passages . . . wherein the victim wrote that [Eileen] made inquir[i]es of him whether the life insurance was paid up" "as circumstantial evidence that Eileen . . . killed her husband for the insurance." Consistent with its earlier ruling on the life insurance evidence, the court excluded these portions of the journal on the grounds they were "not relevant," and also on the grounds they were inadmissible "hearsay." The court further "exclud[ed] the entire journal" on the grounds that its probative value was "minimal and . . . its admission [would] create[] a substantial risk of confusion of the issues and undue consumption of time." Although the court did not mention it in the ruling, exclusion of the entire journal encompassed portions relating to "financial stress on th[e] marriage" between Eileen and the victim, which defense counsel had previously argued was relevant to third-party culpability.

The gist of the court's evidentiary ruling, then, was to exclude all evidence relating to the life insurance, as well as all evidence of the journal. The court did not exclude evidence of the 911 call or the extramarital affair, or the opinion of defendant's blood spatter expert.

During trial, Eileen admitted she had initially lied to police about having an affair with Stafford, but then admitted the affair to them when they questioned her again. On cross-examination, she denied that the detective had told her the police already knew about the affair before she admitted it to them, and she claimed she "volunteered" the information about the affair. On direct examination, Stafford, too, testified that he had initially denied the affair to police but then told them the truth about it.

When defense counsel pointed out to the court that both Eileen and Stafford admitted the affair to police only after the police confronted them with the victim's journal, the trial court agreed that defense counsel could cross-examine them "on what actually motivated them to tell the truth."

Thereafter, on cross-examination, Stafford admitted that he did not tell the police about the affair until "the officer gave [him] some additional information about a journal that [the victim] kept." Similarly, later, during defendant's case, Eileen admitted she told the police about the affair only after the police "told [her] about the computer log." Thus, some evidence of the journal was admitted.

The jury found defendant guilty of first degree murder and found both special allegations true. Thereafter, by agreement, defendant withdrew his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity in exchange for dismissal of the lying in wait allegation and a sentence of 26 years to life. The court sentenced defendant consistent with the agreement.


Defendant contends he was denied his federal constitutional rights to present a defense, to a full and fair adversarial trial, and to due process of law when the trial court excluded his proffered third-party culpability evidence. We disagree.

The California Supreme Court addressed the admissibility of third-party culpability evidence in People v. Hall, supra, 41 Cal.3d at page 826, as follows:

"To be admissible, the third-party evidence need not show 'substantial proof of a probability' that the third person committed the act; it need only be capable of raising a reasonable doubt of defendant's guilt. At the same time, we do not require that any evidence, however remote, must be admitted to show a third party's possible culpability. . . . [E]vidence of mere motive or opportunity to commit the crime in another person, without more, will not suffice to raise a reasonable doubt about a defendant's guilt: there must be direct or circumstantial evidence linking the third person to the actual perpetration of the crime.

"[C]courts should simply treat third-party culpability evidence like any other evidence: if relevant it is admissible ([Evid. Code, ]§ 350) unless its probative value is substantially outweighed by the risk of undue delay, prejudice, or confusion ([Evid. Code, § ]352). We recognize that an inquiry into the admissibility of such evidence and the balancing required under [Evidnece Code] section 352 will always turn on the facts of the case. Yet courts must weigh those facts carefully. They should avoid a hasty conclusion such as the trial court's finding in the present case that evidence of Foust's guilt was 'incredible.' Such a determination is properly the province of the jury.

"Furthermore, courts must focus on the actual degree of risk that the admission of relevant evidence may result in undue delay, prejudice, or confusion. As Wigmore observed, 'if the evidence is really of no appreciable value no harm is done in admitting it; but if the evidence is in truth calculated to cause the jury to doubt, the court should not attempt to decide for the jury that this doubt is purely speculative and fantastic but should afford the accused every opportunity to create that doubt.'" (People v. Hall, supra, 41 Cal.3d at pp. 833-834.)

To address defendant's argument that the trial court erred in excluding third-party culpability evidence, we must, of course, know exactly what evidence the trial court excluded and then focus our analysis on that evidence. Here, however, defendant makes this rather simple point unduly complicated. In his opening brief, defendant purports to identify several categories of evidence on which he sought to rely in his offer of proof regarding third-party culpability, as follows: (1) "[t]he 911 call from Stafford and Statements Regarding Time of Death"; (2) "[c]ontradictory statements by Stafford and [Eileen] about the reason for going to [the victim]'s house on March 19"; (3) "Eileen's . . . statements about collecting benefits from [the victim]'s life insurance policies"; (4) "[p]hone calls and text messages between Eileen . . . and Stafford"; and (5) "[c]rime Scene Evidence and Anita Wonder's Report." (Italics omitted.) He then argues that the trial court excluded all of this evidence "as third party culpability evidence." The People respond that almost all of this evidence was admitted except for "[the victim's] life insurance policies and his computer journal," and the trial court did not forbid defendant from arguing to the jury, based on the evidence that was admitted, his "cynical [third-party culpability] theory." Defendant replies that "the trial court excluded the proffered evidence expressly as proof of third party culpability in this case," and "[t]he trial court's order broadly prohibited use of the third party culpability theory by the defense."

Contrary to defendant's argument, we find nothing in the trial court's ruling that excluded any evidence "as third-party culpability evidence," but admitted it for other purposes. In our view, what the trial court did was evaluate defendant's theory of third-party culpability, and the evidence he contended supported it. Then, upon deciding that the evidence as a whole was not sufficient under Hall to raise a reasonable doubt of defendant's guilt by linking Eileen or Stafford to the actual perpetration of the crime, the trial court excluded the evidence that would have been admissible only to show possible third-party culpability, i.e., the evidence regarding the life insurance. The remaining evidence, however, (with the exception of the journal entries) was not excluded.

This interpretation of the court's ruling is supported by the plain language of the ruling, which was as follows: "In the present case, the court will exclude third party evidence that Eileen Bonomo or Brian Stafford committed the killing, specifically, the court will exclude evidence that the victim had life insurance or that Ms. Bonomo received life insurance benefits afterwards. The Court finds that the probative value of life insurance is minimal and the probability of confusion of issues or undue consumption of time is great." Nothing in this statement suggests the court was excluding any evidence except for the life insurance evidence. (Of course, the trial court also later excluded the journal entries.)

At the same time, however, we do not agree with the People that "the trial court's rulings did not prevent defense counsel from arguing [third-party culpability] to the jury." While the trial court did not expressly forbid such an argument, the court made it clear by its evidentiary rulings excluding the life insurance evidence and the journal entries that it did not believe there was sufficient evidence to support defendant's third-party culpability theory. Thus, had defense counsel tried to argue third-party culpability based on the evidence that was admitted, we have little doubt the court would have sustained an objection by the prosecutor.

Still, the evidentiary rulings the court actually made relating to third-party culpability were limited to excluding the life insurance evidence and the journal entries, and it is those rulings that are before us on appeal. But to determine whether the court erred in those rulings, we must consider all of the evidence defendant relied upon to support his theory of third-party culpability. If that evidence, taken as a whole, was sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt of defendant's guilt by linking Eileen and/or Stafford to the actual perpetration of the crime, then it was error for the trial court to exclude the life insurance evidence as part of that showing. (The journal presents a slightly different question, because the entries may have been inadmissible for reasons that had nothing to do with the strength of defendant's third-party culpability theory -- specifically, hearsay.)

With these points in mind, we turn back to defendant's argument. Defendant argues at some length about entries in the victim's journal that allegedly showed "that Eileen . . . both wanted money and to be free of her husband," that the victim "suspected Eileen was having an affair with another man," and "that Eileen and [the victim] were beset by increasing financial difficulties." He then attempts to distinguish two cases the trial court cited -- People v. Pride (1992) 3 Cal.4th 195 and People v. McWhorter (2009) 47 Cal.4th 318. In summary, he then asserts that "the third party culpability evidence proffered [here], much of it obtained from the victim himself, provided strong motives and ample opportunity for the killing which would have raised a reasonable doubt about [defendant]'s guilt in light of the circumstantial evidence presented by the prosecution to prove his guilt." (Italics added.)

The flaw in this argument is that, as our Supreme Court made clear 25 years ago in Hall, "evidence of mere motive or opportunity to commit the crime in another person, without more, will not suffice to raise a reasonable doubt about a defendant's guilt: there must be direct or circumstantial evidence linking the third person to the actual perpetration of the crime." (People v. Hall, supra, 41 Cal.3d at p. 833.) Almost all of defendant's argument focuses on evidence of motive, specifically, Eileen's need or desire for money and her extramarital affair with Stafford. Defendant offers no argument to show how any of the evidence on which he intended to rely to support his third-party culpability theory, in the words of Hall, "link[ed] [Eileen and Stafford] to the actual perpetration of the crime." (Ibid.)

To the extent that, by his argument, which is framed in terms of his "federal constitutional rights," defendant intends to suggest he had a federal constitutional right to present the life insurance evidence and the evidence of the journal entries to show that Eileen and Stafford had a motive to murder the victim, when there was no evidence linking them to the actual perpetration of the crime, we are not persuaded. Defendant cites no authority supporting that proposition or anything to indicate that the qualification expressed in Hall remains anything but valid 25 years later.

In fact, the qualification in Hall requiring more than "evidence of mere motive or opportunity to commit the crime in another person" was drawn from the Supreme Court's opinion in People v. Mendez (1924) 193 Cal. 39. (See People v. Hall, supra, 41 Cal.3d at p. 833.) Thus, this principle of law is nearly 100 years old, and defendant points to nothing to indicate the constitutionality of that principle has ever been questioned in that time.

To the extent defendant relies on Lunbery v. Hornbeak (9th Cir. 2010) 605 F.3d 754 to support his argument, his reliance is misplaced. In Lunbery, the federal appellate court concluded it was a violation of a criminal defendant's federal constitutional right to present a complete defense for the trial court to exclude as hearsay an admission by another person (who was deceased when the defendant was tried) that he had committed the murder for which the defendant was being tried. (Id. at pp. 760-762.) In making that ruling, the appellate court observed that "[b]y deeming [the] statement . . . inadmissible hearsay, the state court of appeal dismissed the remaining pieces of evidence [of third-party culpability] as providing only motive and opportunity to commit the crime, because there was no direct or circumstantial evidence that a third party had done so. Had [the] statement been admitted, however, this missing element would have been supplied, and the remaining pieces of the puzzle would have become more relevant." (Id. at pp. 761-762.)

Here, in contrast to Lunbery, none of the evidence the trial court excluded -- the life insurance evidence and the entries from the victim's journal -- supplied the "missing element" linking Eileen and Stafford to the actual perpetration of the crime. Thus, Lunbery is of no use here.

In conclusion, because defendant has failed to demonstrate that the evidence of third-party culpability the trial court excluded, even taken as a whole, linked Eileen and Stafford to the actual perpetration of the crime, he has failed to persuade us that any error, constitutional or otherwise, occurred here.


The judgment is affirmed.

We concur: NICHOLSON , Acting P. J. MURRAY , J.

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