A judge ruled Monday that limited portions of the National Enquirer’s taped interviews with Cathy Evelyn Smith, during which she allegedly confessed to killing John Belushi, can be used as evidence against her in a hearing on charges that she fatally injected the comedian with heroin and cocaine.
But Los Angeles Municipal Judge James F. Nelson excluded the bulk of the two hours of tapes--including a statement in which Smith admitted administering “the coup de grace” to Belushi--saying that the 1982 interviews were conducted “in an atmosphere that can best be described as one of levity.”
Both sides claimed the decision would help their case.
Nelson, who listened privately to the tapes Monday morning, ruled that Smith admitted to two Enquirer reporters that she maintained control of all the needles used to inject Belushi with heroin prior to his death; that the heroin she injected into Belushi was hers; and that she was with Belushi until at least 7:45 a.m. on the morning of his death. These statements can be admitted as evidence, the judge said.
Smith, 38, was indicted in March, 1983, by a Los Angeles County grand jury on charges of murder and felony drug furnishing, eight months after the Enquirer published an article headlined: “I Killed John Belushi.” The article was based on the taped interviews in which she was quoted as saying she accidently killed the actor in March, 1982, by injecting him with drugs.
The Los Angeles district attorney’s office, which is seeking a second-degree murder conviction, contends that Smith was the sole source of Belushi’s heroin and the only person who ever injected the comedian with drugs. By committing an inherently dangerous felony--in this case, furnishing the narcotics--a defendant can be convicted of second-degree murder, even if that person did not intend to kill.
“The parts the judge is going to consider are dynamite,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael J. Montagna, one of two prosecutors in Smith’s preliminary hearing before Nelson. “It fortifies the rest of the evidence.”
Defense attorney Howard L. Weitzman countered that Nelson “made some findings corroborating what we’ve said all along--it excludes Cathy as the person who caused the death . . . clearly the article the National Enquirer wrote was inaccurate.”
In deriding all but a small portion of the taped interviews, Nelson specifically cited as inadmissible a statement allegedly made by Smith that she administered to Belushi a final injection, what she referred to as the “coup de grace. “
“That phrase was the product of the interviewer, not the defendant,” Nelson said. “The defendant did not understand the meaning of that phrase.”
The judge, saying that because the tapes were made in a “partying” atmosphere, most portions are “unreliable” to be used as evidence against Smith. Nelson cited frequent difficulties in determining if Smith was speaking in jest or in seriousness since in many instances, she gave “giggling, laughing, bubbly responses (while discussing a) rather gruesome situation.”
Nelson also said that the two Enquirer reporters who conducted the interviews in Toronto, Tony Brenna and Larry Haley, would not have to testify in order for portions of the tapes to be entered into evidence.
Brian O’Neill, an attorney representing the Enquirer, said afterward that he was undecided whether to appeal the judge’s ruling. The Enquirer--citing First Amendment and state press shield law privileges for protecting sources--has strenuously fought previous prosecution efforts to force the reporters to testify about the taped interviews.
Another taped interview with Smith, this one conducted by Los Angeles free-lance journalist Christopher Van Ness, remains the object of contention in the hearing, which will conclude with Nelson ruling whether there is enough evidence for Smith to be tried.
The interview with Van Ness, in which Smith purportedly appears more sober and candid, is cited as “critical to the case,” by the co-prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Elden S. Fox.
As the hearing continued Monday afternoon, Fox questioned Van Ness extensively about his journalistic background and about the tape itself. But Van Ness, acting on the advice of his counsel, Clinton T. Bailey, refused to answer many of the queries, citing journalistic shield law privileges.
Van Ness, who first met Smith in the late 1970s, specifically refused to divulge either the location of the tape or what Smith told him during a 1982 interview. Van Ness, who could be held in contempt of court and sentenced to jail for refusing to answer prosecution questions, is due to take the witness stand again this morning.