In Dec. 16 closing arguments, Matt Murphy, arguably the most talented prosecutor inside the Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA), handled the agency's easiest murder case, People v. Daniel Wozniak, which centers on the gruesome, 2010 killing of Sam Herr, 26, and 23-year-old Juri “Julie” Kibuishi.
Murphy summed up the case for the jury and a camera crew representing network news outfits planning feature stories: “They were murdered. His DNA is on the murder weapon. He did it for money and he admitted it. . . . The evidence is just so overwhelming. . . . We can prove it beyond all reasonable doubt.”
Jurors apparently agreed, taking about two hours to announce in the late afternoon guilty verdicts in the special circumstances murders that now qualify Wozniak, a 31-year-old former community-theater star, for death penalty consideration.
Superior Court Judge John Conley scheduled the penalty phase to begin on Jan. 4, 2016.
Though he stated he would hold back in-depth discussion of the aggravating factors of the crimes, Murphy—a charismatic senior deputy district attorney who has never lost a homicide case—said Wozniak committed a “horror” in May 2010, when he lured Herr, his neighbor at a Costa Mesa apartment complex near Orange Coast College, to the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, shot him twice in the head inside the Liberty Theater, then dismembered him in a plot to steal Herr's life savings of $62,000.
Using Herr's cell phone, Wozniak then tricked Kibuishi into coming to Herr's apartment, where he shot her twice in the head and staged a bedroom scene to imply Herr, who served in U.S. Army combat in Afghanistan, was a killer and rapist on the run.
According to the prosecutor, the plot failed in large part because it encountered “good, smart” Costa Mesa Police Department detectives, who quickly saw through Wozniak's lies that began with him claiming he'd last seen Herr leaving the apartment complex with “a mystery man wearing a black hat.”
“Daniel Wozniak is a pathological liar,” Murphy told the jury. “He thought he'd use his magical acting powers to trick the police.”
Next, as detectives' questioning intensified, Wozniak said he knew Herr killed Kibuishi, had witnessed the corpse and didn't know the whereabouts of his friend.
In yet another interview, Wozniak declared, “I'm crazy, and I did it. . . . I killed Julie. I killed Sam.”
Evidence also showed the defendant, who was broke and on the verge of getting married to Rachel Buffett at the time of the murders, spent days conducting Google searches in an effort to learn about the loudness of gunshots as well as “quick ways to kill people.”
The defense, assistant public defenders Scott Sanders and Tracy LeSage, did not call any witnesses or present any evidence. Their aim is focused entirely on saving Wozniak from a trip to San Quentin State Prison's death row. Murphy said he doesn't yet know what strategy the defense will employ, but he is ready to describe the “very aggravating” circumstances that, in his view, require the ultimate punishment.
Relatives of the victims, who've been frustrated for years by delays in the case, looked noticeably relieved the trial will now move to the penalty phase.
Buffett, Wozniak's ex-fiancee, is facing charges of accessory after the fact.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.