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The People v. Joanna Lorraine Peterson

November 14, 2012


(Super. Ct. No. 05F8876)

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

P. v. Peterson



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 This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.

As part of a negotiated plea agreement, defendant Joanna Peterson pleaded guilty to second degree murder and agreed to testify at the trial of her co-defendant Scott Varner. Pursuant to the plea agreement, the trial court sentenced her to 15 years to life in prison.

Defendant testified at Varner's trial. Varner was convicted of first degree murder with special circumstances and sentenced to death. Following defendant's testimony, however, the prosecutor moved to vacate her plea agreement on the ground that the plea agreement was premised on the truth of her statements, but her false statements created the inference that she had not been an active participant in the murder. The trial court agreed that defendant had made materially false statements and vacated the plea. Thereafter, defendant pleaded guilty to second degree murder and robbery in exchange for a sentence of 17 years to life in prison.

Defendant now challenges the trial court's ruling vacating her plea, contending (1) the trial court applied the wrong standard of review and the ruling is not supported by substantial evidence; (2) judicial estoppel bars the revocation of the plea agreement; (3) collateral estoppel bars the revocation of the plea agreement; (4) the trial court erred in invalidating the plea agreement after the prosecution reaped the benefit of its bargain; (5) the ruling must be vacated because of judicial disqualification; and (6) the ruling violated defendant's substantive due process rights.

Defendant's contentions lack merit. We will affirm the judgment.


Jeanette Mariedth was murdered on November 26, 2005. Defendant and Varner were charged with premeditated murder, second degree robbery, kidnapping for robbery, kidnapping for carjacking, and carjacking. The information also alleged various special circumstances, which if true made the murder punishable by death or by life in prison without the possibility of parole. Defendant was 17 years old and was living on the streets at the time of the murder.

On November 7, 2008, defendant entered a plea agreement in which she pleaded guilty to second degree murder in exchange for the dismissal of the remaining charges and a sentence of 15 years to life in prison. As part of the plea agreement, defendant agreed to testify fully and truthfully at all stages of Varner's trial and at any interview. The agreement was premised on a taped statement she provided the previous day, which she expressly affirmed was "true, correct, and complete." With respect to that taped statement, the plea agreement provides: "A material misrepresentation will be grounds for revoking this agreement and reinstating all charges contained in the Information, including enhancements."


In the taped statement made on November 6, 2008 (the one expressly referenced in the plea agreement), defendant said that on November 26, 2005, she was at the Travel Inn with two individuals named Casey and Jasmine when Varner came in through the bathroom window around 7:30 or 8:00 p.m. He introduced himself as "Kevin" and was wearing a gold tracksuit and black gloves. Defendant left with Varner to obtain methamphetamine. They were behind the Ready Inn when Varner encountered a man named Brandon, with whom he fought after Brandon called him a child molester. During the fight, Brandon dropped a knife and Varner picked it up.

Defendant and Varner went to State Street to see a man named "Butch," from whom they intended to purchase methamphetamine, but he was not home. As they sat in the parking lot of the apartment complex to wait for Butch, Mariedth drove into the complex and began unloading her groceries. Varner asked her for a ride to the Shasta Lake area and Mariedth agreed to accommodate them after she unloaded her groceries. Defendant had seen Mariedth previously when defendant used to live nearby and had helped her with her groceries once, but defendant did not think Mariedth recognized her. She denied she or Varner entered Mariedth's home while they were waiting, and could not explain why the groceries were strewn all over the floor when the police arrived later.

When they got into Mariedth's car, Varner sat in the front passenger's seat and defendant sat in the backseat. As they approached Redding, Varner told Mariedth he had a gun and a knife and would kill her if she did not cooperate. Defendant thought that Varner intended to take Mariedth's car. Varner demanded money, Mariedth gave him $20, and defendant used the money to buy cigarettes for Varner at a Circle K store. Sometime later they stopped at an In-N-Out Burger for food.

Varner stated he wanted to visit his younger brother's gravesite in Whiskeytown. En route, defendant asked Varner if he intended to let Mariedth go, but he did not reply. At the cemetery, Varner instructed Mariedth to back into an unpaved area next to a small ditch. Defendant got out of the car because she had to go to the bathroom; she went behind a bush. Varner took the car keys and left Mariedth in the car. He advised defendant they needed to kill Mariedth because she could identify them and he had an "outstanding warrant for parole . . . 'cause he broke his ankle bracelet." Defendant refused to help Varner.

When they returned to the car, Varner told Mariedth that he was going to kill her. Varner asked if her car seat headrest was removable and if she had any plastic bags. She responded in the negative to both questions. Varner crawled into the backseat, emptied the contents of a plastic bag he found there, placed the bag over Mariedth's head and began choking her. Mariedth was kicking and screaming, and she attempted to fight back. Varner pulled her in between the seats so that her hands could not get to the bag over her head, and punched her repeatedly in the face. Meanwhile, defendant was curled into a ball in the backseat.

Varner continued choking and hitting Mariedth for about 20 minutes until she stopped moving. Varner asked defendant to help him remove Mariedth from the car, but defendant refused until he threatened her with a knife. After they extricated Mariedth's body from between the seats, Varner rolled her into the ditch and covered her with bushes and a blanket. He looked around for evidence and put the plastic bag from Mariedth's head into the trunk.

Defendant drove the car when they left the cemetery because Varner said he did not know how to drive. They stopped at a Valero gas station where Varner emptied trash from the car into the parking lot. They returned to the Travel Inn and while Casey and Jasmine were sleeping, Varner took their CD player. Thereafter, while driving around, defendant and Varner encountered defendant's friend Matthew "Papa Bear" Miller and gave him a ride to buy gas. They picked up Sandra "Mama Bear" Miller and a gas can at the Millers' van. The Millers bought some gas at an AM/PM and then they all went shopping at Wal-Mart so that defendant could break a $100 bill. They dropped off the Millers at the gas station and continued on to find a drug dealer.

Varner insisted on driving, lost control of the car, and crashed into a pole. They abandoned the car, went to a friend's house and a few other places before going to Taco Bell for a meal. After eating, they hired a cab and went to Mariedth's apartment. They used Mariedth's keys to gain entry and told a neighbor who saw them that defendant was Mariedth's niece. Varner realized that his black gloves were missing and put on some latex gloves he found in the apartment. Varner went through Mariedth's jewelry box and stole some of her rings. They were inside the apartment for about 10 to 20 minutes before law enforcement arrived. Varner left through a window and jumped over a fence. Defendant crawled out of the bedroom window and started walking down the street when she was apprehended.

During the interview defendant admitted that her DNA would be under one of Mariedth's fingernails. She suspected that her fingerprints were in numerous places in Mariedth's car because she had not been wearing gloves.

At the time, however, the prosecutor did not have the results of a DNA analysis performed on a pair of white cloth gloves found in the backseat area of Mariedth's car. For one of the gloves -- identified as "G-34" in the DNA analysis -- there was a primary female contributor of DNA inside and outside the glove, along with other low level DNA types detected. Defendant was a match for the primary female contributor of DNA inside glove G-34, and she could not be excluded as the primary female contributor to the DNA outside glove G-34.

For the other glove -- identified as G-11 in the DNA analysis -- defendant could not be excluded as the primary female contributor to the DNA inside the glove, and she was a match for the primary female contributor of DNA outside glove G-11.

The prosecutor also interviewed defendant briefly on July 7, 2009, during jury selection for Varner's trial. The prosecutor impressed upon defendant how important it was for her to be honest. Defendant related that she and Varner were looking for drugs the night they met up with Mariedth. She said she had only seen Varner once before, earlier that November. The prosecutor asked defendant if she had worn the white gloves found in Mariedth's car. Defendant said she had not, but she had moved them from the backseat to the floor behind the driver's seat when she entered the car and sat down. She stated Varner took Mariedth's rings from her apartment, not from her body. Defendant discussed how she knew the Millers, and she also discussed her assault and battery on a girl, which had resulted in defendant being declared a ward of the court.


Defendant testified at Varner's trial on August 11, 2009. She recounted going with Varner to get drugs, watching Varner fight with Brandon and obtain his knife, and waiting for the drug dealer at the apartment complex when Mariedth arrived. Defendant said Mariedth agreed to give them a ride and, while they were en route, Varner threatened Mariedth with a knife and demanded money. Mariedth complied and defendant used the money to buy cigarettes at a Circle K. They also purchased burgers at an In-N-Out Burger.

Thereafter, Mariedth drove to Whiskeytown and parked the car as instructed, and defendant and Varner exited the vehicle. Varner said they had to kill Mariedth because she would report them to the police, but defendant refused to participate. They both reentered the car -- defendant in the back and Varner in the front -- and he asked Mariedth if the headrest was removable. She replied it was not, he crawled into the backseat, found a plastic bag and dumped out the contents. Varner tried to suffocate Mariedth with the plastic bag, beat her about the face, and manually strangled her. It took about 20 minutes for Varner to kill Mariedth, during which time defendant was curled up in the backseat next to him.

Varner forced defendant at knifepoint to help him remove Mariedth's body from the car. Varner rolled the body into a ditch and defendant placed the plastic bag used to suffocate Mariedth in the trunk.*fn1 Defendant drove the car to a gasoline station, where Varner dumped out some of the trash from the car. They returned to the Travel Inn where Varner retrieved a compact disc player and CDs. Defendant and Varner were driving around when they encountered Papa Bear Miller. They offered him a ride to his van, where they picked up his wife, Mama Bear, and then drove to a gas station to fill a gas container. Defendant gave Papa Bear some money for gas. The group went to a Wal-Mart store in Redding, made some purchases and then left in search of methamphetamine. Varner indicated that the Millers could not accompany them and he left them at a gas station. At that point, Varner got in the driver's seat and defendant the passenger's seat. Varner lost control of the car and it crashed into a pole. Defendant gathered her purchases from Wal-Mart, her backpack and Mariedth's purse; Varner removed the keys from the ignition; and they abandoned the car.

A friend gave defendant and Varner a ride to a parking lot behind the Americana Hotel around 6:00 a.m. and then they returned to the Travel Inn. When no one answered the door, they went to Taco Bell and had something to eat. After that they hired a taxi to take them to South City Park. According to the taxi driver, defendant was wearing black clothing and Varner wore a gold sweatshirt. Varner and defendant went to Mariedth's apartment and used her keys to enter. A neighbor saw them and defendant said she was Mariedth's niece. Defendant felt ill and went into the bathroom and vomited. Varner rummaged through Mariedth's jewelry box and stole some rings, which he put in his pocket.

Other evidence at trial indicated that, meanwhile, the police arrived at the accident scene where Mariedth's car was abandoned. Soon the Millers walked by. The Millers recognized Mariedth's wrecked car as the one they rode in with defendant and Varner. They told the police they had been passengers in the car and asked if they could get their gas can out of the trunk. When the police opened the trunk they found the bloody plastic bag used to asphyxiate Mariedth.

Later that morning, Mariedth's brother reported her missing. Sergeants Stainberg and Bokavich went to Mariedth's apartment to investigate at the same time that defendant and Varner were inside. After the officers knocked on the door, Varner left the apartment through the bedroom window. Defendant left through a different window and was apprehended by Sergeant Bokavich. Varner was apprehended later. At the time of Varner's arrest he was wearing numerous women's rings on his fingers. According to Mariedth's brother, one was a ring that Mariedth always wore and never removed.

At trial, defendant stated that she was told she was liable for Mariedth's death under a felony murder theory even if she was not an active participant in the killing. Under the circumstances, she pleaded guilty to second degree murder to avoid a harsher sentence. Defendant denied wearing the white gloves found in the backseat of Mariedth's car. She could not explain how her DNA got inside the gloves. Police did not find defendant's fingerprints inside Mariedth's car, only outside on the rear passenger door.

Varner's defense attorney's questioning of defendant portrayed her as an inveterate liar. Defendant admitted she lied on the day of her arrest when she initially said she had been with a friend named Cody all night and denied being in Mariedth's car.*fn2 In fact, she told an elaborate story about sneaking out of the house to avoid Cody's mother because defendant did not get along with her. Defendant continued to deny any involvement until she learned Varner was arrested and that he said they had been in a traffic collision together, at which time her story changed. She told the interviewers that Varner picked her up driving his uncle's car, and she did not learn about what he had done to Mariedth earlier until after he wrecked the car and told her the whole story. Defendant told the interviewers that the only reason she had Mariedth's purse when she was arrested was because it had become entangled in defendant's backpack when she fled the apartment. When they told her that Varner had stolen some of Mariedth's property, defendant feigned surprise.

The interviewing officers advised defendant that they knew she was lying, at which point she blurted out that Varner had killed Mariedth. She claimed that she knew where Mariedth's body was because Varner had told her. Thereafter, she altered her story again and admitted she was in the backseat during the murder. When the interviewer left the room, defendant began crying hysterically and said, "God help me" and "What did I do?" Defendant could not recall telling the police that the only reason she went along with the program was because she was falling in love with Varner.

Varner's attorney demonstrated inconsistencies in defendant's testimony about the circumstances and extent of her drug use, and how well she knew Mariedth, intimating that Mariedth gave them a ride because she knew defendant. He elicited that defendant had changed her pants after the murder, lied to the police about the clothing she was wearing at the time of the murder, lied at trial about the pants in violation of her plea agreement, and he ...

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