A woman who was acquitted of beating her husband to death with a baseball bat cannot be declared innocent because enough evidence pointed to her guilt, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday.
The state high court overturned a trial judge’s finding that Jeanie Louise Adair was “factually innocent” of the 1996 killing of her husband, Robert Adair, 40, at their Sylmar home. Under California law, defendants who are acquitted of a crime can ask the trial judge to declare them innocent and destroy all records of their arrest and trial.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge L. Jeffrey Wiatt granted Adair’s petition for a finding of innocence, but Los Angeles prosecutors appealed that ruling to the high court. In an opinion written by Justice Janice Rogers Brown, the Supreme Court said Adair failed to show “that no reasonable cause exists to believe” she killed her husband. The ruling upheld a decision by a Court of Appeal.
Adair, who had been having an affair at the time of the killing, collected $400,000 in life insurance after her husband died.
“ ‘One reasonable interpretation of the evidence suggests that the defendant bludgeoned her husband to death and concocted a story to cover her crime,’ ” Brown quoted the appeal court as stating. “We agree with this assessment of the record and with the conclusion that the trial court erred in making a finding of factual innocence.”
The decision has been a “long time coming,” said the victim’s younger sister, Simone Adair of San Francisco. “It’s really restored my sense that there is some justice.”
For prosecutors, the ruling was a bittersweet vindication of the police work and their efforts on a high-profile first-degree murder case that they had lost spectacularly.
Thursday’s ruling will require appellate courts to independently examine evidence from trials in future cases. The standard set by the court may make it easier for prosecutors to prevail when appealing findings of factual innocence. Such findings are uncommon.
Robert Adair was killed during the early afternoon of Nov. 5, 1996, in the Sylmar condominium he shared with his wife and their two children. Jeanie Adair, now 42, gave police “several descriptions of what took place, some with marked discrepancies,” Brown wrote.
In one version, she said that a man posing as a gas company worker came into her house, knocked her down, kicked her in the face and bound and gagged her. She said she later heard her husband arrive, and when she managed to free herself, found him in a pool of blood.
“In some versions, the defendant was tied to a chair; in others, she was hogtied, without a chair being involved,” Brown noted. “She described the intruder variously as white, black and Hispanic.”
But other evidence indicated that someone impersonating a gas company employee had been seen outside the Adair home on the day of the crime. A Los Angeles police criminalist also testified that if Adair had killed her husband with the baseball bat, his blood would have been found on her clothing. None was found.
After a jury found Adair not guilty, Wiatt cited the lack of Robert Adair’s blood on her clothing as a reason for finding her factually innocent. Wiatt said he did not believe the prosecution’s argument that Adair had dumped her bloody clothes.
Los Angeles Deputy Dist. Atty. Patrick D. Moran, who represented the prosecution in the appeal, said he was pleased with the decision.
Had the court agreed with Adair, she could have answered “no” whenever a potential employer asked her if she had ever been arrested or charged with a serious crime. Now the charges remain public record.
He said California law was changed a few decades ago to give acquitted defendants the chance to have their records destroyed.
John Steinberg, a lawyer who represented Adair on appeal, could not be reached for comment.
Richard Plotin, who won Adair’s acquittal, expressed disappointment. “The Supreme Court eviscerated the statute of factual innocence,” Plotin said. “I believe and still believe totally that not only was she innocent, she was factually innocent.”
Plotin said Jeanie Adair still lives in Southern California with her two children and is trying to put her husband’s murder and the trial behind her. “She’s doing the best she can,” Plotin said.