Three Evidentiary Errors Found to Be Harmless in Wife-Killing Case

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A man who strangled his ex-wife and then threw her overboard from their cruise ship into the Mediterranean Sea lost an appeal from his conviction for first-degree murder for financial gain. He argued that six pieces of evidence presented at trial should not have been admitted. The appellate court reviewed the proceedings and concluded that it “was not a close case.” Although there had been three “faulty” admissions, they were found to be “harmless error” that was not prejudicial and did not infringe on the convicted man’s constitutional rights. He will remain in prison.

Plaintiff Lonnie Loren Kocontes appealed the judgment he received from Orange County Superior Court Judge William C. Evans (now retired). A unanimous three-judge panel of Division Three of California’s Fourth Appellate District took judicial notice of the decision and unanimously affirmed Evans’ ruling on December 21. Presiding Justice Kathleen O’Leary authored the opinion.

In July 2013, Kocontes was convicted of first-degree murder for financial gain in violation of a section of the Penal Code. Throughout his pretrial, the defendant filed many petitions that led to appeals, opinions and dismissed opinions the District Court would review in this appeal.

The facts of the case sound like a script for a grisly movie murder mystery. Kocontes, an attorney, met his ex-wife Micki Kanesaki at his former law firm where she was a legal assistant. They married in the mid-1990s and stayed married until 1999 when Kocontes was charged with inappropriate sexual conduct with another woman. They allegedly divorced to protect their assets from a civil suit from the woman. They stayed divorced but decided to merge their finances.

In 2002, Kocontes met another woman, Amy Nguyen, whom he married in 2005. After his first wife visited the couple, Kocontes moved back in with her. A few days later, he told Nguyen that “the only way to get rid of (Kanesaki) was to make her silent forever.” Kocontes then divorced his second wife. That same year, Kocontes and Kanesaki drew up wills that made each other sole beneficiaries.

The defendant told a friend, Bill Price, a former police officer and private investigator, that he was staying in a relationship with his first wife “because he did not want to lose half his money.” In May 2006 Kocontes booked a Mediterranean cruise on a ship that was a converted car ferry boat. Price testified at trial that the defendant contacted him about finding someone who could kill Kanesaki. In addition, he said that the non-luxurious ship they selected was chosen because it lacked security and onboard cameras. They sailed on May 23, 2006.

After a night of dinner and dancing, the couple returned to their cabin where Kocontes took a sleeping pill. He said he woke at 4:15 and discovered that Kanesaki was not in the room. At 6 a.m., he reported his wife missing. A search of the ship failed to locate her. A scientific research ship discovered her body 36 hours later. An autopsy by an Italian forensic pathologist revealed that “she had not drowned” and had “injuries consistent with strangulation” and being hit with a heavy object. The official cause of death was “homicide caused by mechanical asphyxia through strangulation.”

The FBI interviewed Kocontes in Los Angeles. He told them he thought Kanesaki was seasick and fell overboard when she was vomiting. The FBI investigated and learned that the defendant had inherited over $900,000 from his ex-wife’s estate. The FBI also planted an informant in his cell, which the trial court reviewed and found permissible. Law enforcement also learned that Kocontes had taken Nguyen’s hard drive and told her to lie to the grand jury. She did so because she was scared he “would harm her” if she didn’t.

After a long trial with rounds of testimony from both sides, the court sentenced Kocontes to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

O’Leary’s opinion reviewed all of Kocontes’ motions to exclude evidence. She concluded that the trial court did commit three evidentiary errors and explained that these were to be reviewed under the “harmless error standard” that determines “whether it was reasonably probable that the error(s) affected the outcome of the case.”

After a lengthy review of the trial record, the appellate opinion concluded there was “overwhelming evidence that Kanesaki’s death was a homicide.” She had been strangled and hit with a hard object and she did not drown. Other evidence showed Kocontes had told Nguyen that “the only way to get rid of Kanesaki was to make her silent forever.” The record described testimony about the defendant’s “obsession with sex and money” and his unsuccessful attempts to hire others to “throw her in the water.”

Based on this record, O’Leary wrote, “We conclude the three evidentiary errors were harmless beyond any reasonable doubt.” The court should not have admitted evidence about a 1999 incident concerning defendant’s “inappropriate relationship with a female.” It should not have admitted evidence that Kanesaki’s blood and urine testified negative for alcohol, and it erred when it admitted e-mails the deceased wrote to a friend 14 months before her murder.

But, none of these affected the outcome because, as O’Leary wrote, “This was not a close case.” The evidence was “overwhelming” and the errors, “whether considered individually or cumulatively,” did not lead to an “unfair trial or a miscarriage of justice.”

Maureen Rubin, J.D.
Maureen Rubin, J.D.
Maureen Rubin is an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University where she taught media law and writing and served as an administrator. Previously, she worked in the Carter White House and U.S. Congress, She is a graduate of Catholic University Law School and holds a Master's from USC.
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