Beverly Anne Monroe, v. Ronald J. Angelone — (Justia Law)

SSRI Ed note: Wealthy scientist taking Librium commits suicide, his long-time girlfriend is convicted of murder. She appeals.

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Justia Law

Beverly Anne Monroe, Petitioner-appellee, v. Ronald J. Angelone, Director, Virginia Department of Corrections, Respondent-appellant

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit – 323 F.3d 286 (4th Cir. 2003)

Argued: December 3, 2002

Decided: March 26, 2003

Before WILKINSON and KING, Circuit Judges, and GOODWIN, United States District Judge for the Southern District of West Virginia, sitting by designation.

Affirmed in part and dismissed in part by published opinion. Judge KING wrote the opinion, in which Judge WILKINSON and Judge GOODWIN joined.


KING, Circuit Judge:

In March of 1992, wealthy art collector and notorious philanderer Roger de la Burde died from a single gunshot wound to the head. Following a high-profile trial in Powhatan County, Virginia, his longtime girlfriend Beverly Monroe was convicted of his murder. Monroe later discovered a wealth of exculpatory evidence that the prosecution had suppressed, including impeachment material, leads implicating other suspects, official documents labeling Burde’s death a suicide, and statements suggesting that Burde may have been suicidal. On the basis of this new information, Monroe claimed that the prosecution had violated her due process rights, pursuant to the principles established by Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S. Ct. 1194, 10 L. Ed. 2d 215 (1963).

After unsuccessful state court proceedings, Monroe petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in the Eastern District of Virginia. Following discovery in the federal proceedings, the district court granted the writ, concluding that the prosecution had suppressed material, exculpatory evidence. Monroe v. Angelone, No. 3:98CV254, Memorandum Opinion (E.D. Va. Mar. 28, 2002) (the “Habeas Opinion”). The Commonwealth1  has appealed the court’s award of habeas corpus relief, and Monroe has cross-appealed, challenging the court’s conclusion that she procedurally defaulted certain aspects of her Brady claim.2  Because the Brady evidence3  on which the court relied is sufficient to warrant its award of habeas corpus relief, we affirm without deciding the procedural default issue.

This murder prosecution was closely contested, and the Commonwealth’s evidence of premeditation and malice, essential elements of first-degree murder in Virginia, was particularly sparse. In attempting to portray Monroe as a cold-blooded, calculating killer, the Commonwealth relied primarily on the testimony of Zelma Smith, who told the jury that Monroe sought to obtain an untraceable handgun about a year before Burde’s death. Significantly, the Commonwealth suppressed several evidentiary items that would have severely damaged the credibility of this crucial witness. The suppression of this Brady evidence undermines our confidence in the verdict, and there is a reasonable probability that, had the prosecution properly disclosed exculpatory material, the jury would not have convicted Monroe of first-degree murder.

In the early morning hours of March 5, 1992, Monroe and Joe Hairfield, Burde’s groundskeeper, discovered Burde’s body lying on a couch in the main house of his Powhatan County estate. Burde had died from a single gunshot wound to his forehead, the shot having been fired from his own handgun. The Powhatan County Sheriff’s Office and Medical Examiner originally treated Burde’s death as a suicide, and very little evidence was collected from the scene. The State Police, however, soon began to suspect foul play, and the ensuing investigation focused exclusively on Monroe.

During his lifetime, Burde held himself out as descended from Polish royalty, and he had gained notoriety for his rumored wealth, his art collection, and his promiscuity. He was reputed to be a ruthless businessman who had amassed a substantial fortune through unorthodox business deals. He had worked for a number of years as a chemist at Philip Morris Incorporated (“Philip Morris”), but after the company forced him into retirement, he concentrated on his real estate investments and his collection of African art. As part of his livelihood, Burde ran a horse farm on his sprawling estate, which was known to local residents as “Windsor.”

Monroe had been involved in a romantic relationship with Burde for approximately thirteen years before his death, and she had been with him on the evening of March 4, 1992. Although Burde had affairs with other women, Monroe had been his primary girlfriend in the years prior to his death. In 1992, Monroe was fifty-four years old. She held a masters degree in organic chemistry, and she had been employed for more than ten years in the patent department of Philip Morris. Monroe had close relationships with her three children, whom she had raised after her 1981 separation (and subsequent divorce) from Stuart Monroe. In 1992, Beverly Monroe lived with her adult son, Gavin, approximately thirteen miles from Windsor, and her daughters, Shannon and Katie, visited frequently.

At Monroe’s trial in the Circuit Court of Powhatan County, the Commonwealth introduced evidence that Burde had affairs with other women, that Monroe stood to gain financially from Burde’s death, and that Monroe had made inconsistent statements about whether she was present when Burde committed suicide. Further, the Commonwealth offered the testimony of Smith, a multiple felon, who stated that ten months prior to Burde’s death, Monroe, identifying herself as “Ms. Nelson,” had offered her $800 for an untraceable handgun. The Commonwealth also sought to establish that Burde was upbeat and happy prior to his death and would not have committed suicide. Finally, the Commonwealth presented forensic evidence suggesting that it was unlikely that Burde had shot himself.

In her defense, Monroe presented two alternate explanations of Burde’s death, both of which supported her acquittal. First, she sought to show that Burde had committed suicide. Along these lines, witnesses testified to his precarious mental state, describing him as narcissistic and controlling, cruel and abusive to those around him, prone to obsessive and paranoid behavior, and depressed in the weeks and months prior to his death. The evidence showed that Burde’s mother had attempted suicide and that Burde himself had discussed suicide in the past. Furthermore, Monroe contended that Burde had reason to be suicidal. For example, he was in danger of being exposed as a fraud in his art dealings, and he was worried about his health. Second, Monroe attempted to show that Burde had many enemies, any one of whom could have killed him. The list of potential suspects included his jilted girlfriends, their husbands, and Burde’s children.

In addition to offering alternate explanations for Burde’s death, Monroe sought to convince the jury that she was incapable of committing the murder. She testified in her own defense, maintaining that she had not been present when Burde died and that any of her statements to the contrary had been coerced. According to Monroe, she loved Burde, accepted his imperfections, and would never have killed him. Indeed, Monroe was, by all accounts, a calm, gentle, and kind person, and she had an impeccable reputation as an honest and law-abiding citizen. According to numerous witnesses, she had been distraught in the weeks and months following Burde’s death. Monroe also presented the jury with alibi evidence, in the form of a receipt and a neutral eyewitness, placing her in a grocery store miles from Windsor around the time of Burde’s death.

On November 2, 1992, after a seven-day trial, the jury convicted Monroe of first-degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. On December 22, 1992, she was sentenced to twenty years in prison for the murder conviction and an additional two years for the firearm conviction.4

On direct appeal to the Court of Appeals of Virginia, Monroe primarily contended that her statements to authorities were admitted at trial in violation of her Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights. Among other claims, she maintained that the trial court erred in admitting the testimony of Zelma Smith because the prosecution had violated its obligations under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S. Ct. 1194, 10 L. Ed. 2d 215 (1963), when it failed to disclose material that would have undermined Smith’s credibility.5  On this point, Monroe asserted that the prosecution had withheld evidence that it had agreed not to prosecute Smith on a firearms offense in exchange for her testimony against Monroe (the “Smith gun deal”).

On May 2, 1995, the Court of Appeals affirmed Monroe’s conviction, concluding, inter alia, that the prosecution’s suppression of the Smith gun deal was immaterial. Monroe v. Virginia, 1995 WL 250986, No. 2604-92-2, Memorandum Opinion (Va.Ct. App. May 2, 1995) (“Monroe I“). Six months later, in a summary opinion issued on November 1, 1995, the Supreme Court of Virginia refused to grant Monroe’s petition for appeal. Monroe v. Virginia, No. 951346 (Va. Nov. 1, 1995).

On April 7, 1997, after an unsuccessful direct appeals process, Monroe filed a habeas corpus petition in the Supreme Court of Virginia, raising numerous challenges to her conviction. First, she contended that she had received ineffective assistance of counsel. Second, she asserted, once again, that her statements to the authorities had been introduced in violation of Miranda and her Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Finally, she maintained that her conviction had been obtained in violation of her due process rights, because of a tainted investigation, prosecutorial misconduct, and the Commonwealth’s violation of Brady by its suppression of exculpatory evidence.

In support of her Brady claim, Monroe pointed to nine separate items of suppressed, exculpatory material: (1) the Smith gun deal; (2) the Commonwealth’s agreement to help Smith obtain a reduction of an unrelated sentence (the “Smith sentence deal”); (3) Smith’s history as an informant (“Smith’s informant history”); (4) the identity of witnesses who had seen a dark Bronco/Blazer vehicle speeding from Windsor around the time of Burde’s death (the “Bronco witnesses”); (5) the full results of gunshot residue tests (the “residue tests”); (6) the medical records of Krystyna Drewnowska (“Krystyna”), one of Burde’s girlfriends, who was pregnant with his child when he died (“Krystyna’s medical records”);6  (7) a statement by Windsor groundskeeper Joe Hairfield that he had moved the gun when he found Burde’s body (“Hairfield’s statement”); (8) a medical examiner’s report (the “missing examiner’s report”); and (9) the source of a letter written by Monroe and used to pressure her in a pre-trial police interview (the “inculpatory letter source”).

On October 29, 1997, Monroe moved in the Supreme Court of Virginia for discovery to search for other exculpatory material that the prosecution may have suppressed. Further, on November 20, 1997, Monroe sought to amend her state habeas corpus petition to include claims based on evidence she had discovered through an independent investigation. In particular, Monroe had obtained evidence that the Commonwealth had suppressed three other items of exculpatory material:

(1) a March 5, 1992, report made by Dr. Brown of the Medical Examiner’s office, which indicated that, based on his examination of Burde’s body at Windsor, he concluded that Burde’s death was a suicide (“Dr. Brown’s first report”);

(2) a laboratory request made by Dr. Jefferson, the physician in the Medical Examiner’s office who conducted Burde’s autopsy, labeling Burde’s death a suicide (“Dr. Jefferson’s notes”); and

(3) evidence that Burde’s ex-wife, Dr. Brigitte Burde, had advised the Medical Examiner’s office that Burde had been experiencing personal problems and taking Librium, an anti-depressant medication (the “anti-depressant disclosure”).

These items came to light through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Powhatan County Medical Examiner after the conclusion of Monroe’s trial (the “FOIA request”).