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Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Find Me Guilty: California Judge Excludes Defendant's Statement, "This Is All My Fault. I Did This."

Tony Ricky Yonko has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with the death of Paul Dinh Ngo.  The prosecution has alleged that Yonko bludgeoned Ngo to death with a hammer in Ngo's house.  If he is found guilty by the California jurors hearing the case, he could face the death penalty, but the likelihood of a conviction was somewhat reduced by an odd evidentiary ruling by Judge Judith Clark on Wednesday.

On Monday, Yonko's teenage daughter gave emotional, tearful testimony that on the day of Ngo's death, her father came home covered in blood.  According to Deputy Mike Yarbrough, after the daughter gave this testimony, Yonko told him, "This is all my fault. I did this."  Yarbrough repeated Yonko's comment in testimony outside the presence of the jury on Tuesday, but on Wednesday, Judge Clark told attorneys that Yarbrough would not be able to repeat his testimony to jurors because there was no way to know what Yonko may have meant and the comment would open up too much speculation by the jury.

This decision baffles me.  I'm going to assume that the basis for Judge Clark's ruling was not California Evidence Code Section 1220, which states that statements are not held inadmissible by the hearsay rule when offered against the declarant in an an action to which he is a party.  Here, Yonko is a part to the action as a criminal defendant, and his alleged statements to Yarbrough undoubtedly would have been offered against him, making them admissible. 

Presumably, then, Judge Clark excluded Yonko's alleged statements under California Evidence Code Section 352, which states that a court in its discretion may exclude evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by dangers such as its prejudicial effect or potential for misleading the jury or confusing the issues.  In order for Judge Clark's decision to make sense, we would have to accept her belief that Yonko's statement was extremely ambiguous and could have meant several things.  I see no way, however, to characterize the statement, "This is all my fault. I did this," made by the defendant during his trial for murder directly after his daughter provided incriminating testimony against him, as anything but an admission of guilt by Yonko.

-CM    

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