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COURT OF APPEALS OF VIRGINIA
May 2, 2006
CAROLYN D. BRANDT MEMORANDUM OPINION* BY v. Record No. 2342-04-2
On the evening of May 21, 2003, Ronnie Brandt died of smoke inhalation from a fire in his mobile home on Brook Road in Henrico County. His wife, Carolyn Brandt (Brandt), the appellant, was indicted and convicted of arson and first-degree murder in connection with the fire.
The principal issue on appeal is whether the trial court properly admitted into evidence the results of a fire investigator’s experiment that he conducted after the fire. The experiment
consisted of the investigator placing a lit cigarette on each of twenty separate piles of clothing to determine the likelihood of a fire starting in that manner. The appellant contends that because
the “lit cigarette” experiment was not conducted under conditions substantially similar to those in which the actual fire occurred and because the results of the test were not shown to have been
scientifically reliable, the trial judge erred by admitting the evidence. Assuming without deciding that the trial judge erred by admitting evidence of the results of the experiment, the
incriminating evidence against Carolyn Brandt was so overwhelming in proving her guilt that any error in the admission of the experimental evidence was harmless.
We adhere to “the sound judicial practice of refusing to decide or address issues whose resolution is not necessary to dispose of a case, unless there are compelling reasons to do
otherwise.” United States v. Craig, 861 F.2d 818, 821 (5th Cir. 1988). See also Milton v. Wainwright, 407 U.S. 371, 372 (1972) (“the judgment under review must be affirmed without
reaching the merits of petitioner’s present claim. Assuming, arguendo, that the challenged testimony should have been excluded, the record clearly reveals that any error in its admission
was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.”); Pitt v. Commonwealth, 260 Va. 692, 695, 539 S.E.2d 77, 79 (2000)
First, and most significantly, are Brandt’s express admissions that she set the fire to collect the fire and life insurance and to rid herself of Ronnie Brandt. Brandt’s daughter testified
that on the night of the fire her mother admitted to starting the fire to collect on the homeowner’s insurance because the owner was closing the trailer park. Several witnesses also testified to
having heard Carolyn Brandt expressly admit to having set the fire to collect the insurance and to kill her husband. The daughter also testified that her mother told her that, before the fire, she had
put some photographs in a drawer where they would be safe and after the fire she asked the daughter to retrieve them. Thus, Brandt’s express and tacit admissions that she set the fire were
corroborated by several witnesses, as well as other surrounding circumstances.
Additionally, the circumstantial evidence proved that Carolyn Brandt not only had, but communicated to others, her motive and desire for burning her mobile home and for killing her
husband. Proof of motive is always a fact and circumstance that may be introduced to prove that an accused committed the charged offense. Here, numerous witnesses testified that Carolyn
Brandt told them she wanted her husband dead and had talked about what methods she might use to kill him. For example, she told her son how she could “kill somebody and get away with it.”
Carolyn Brandt’s daughter-in-law stated that Brandt mentioned that she hoped the police did not test her shoes for gasoline, which she said she used “to make the fire burn quicker.” Several
witnesses, including Brandt’s daughter, son-in-law, and a neighbor, testified she told them she needed money and that she had insurance on the mobile home and life insurance on Ronnie that
she was going to collect. A witness testified that Carolyn Brandt’s daughter called her two weeks after the fire to ask about insurance money, and clearly wanted the money. Additionally,
after the fire, the investigators found romantic letters written to Carolyn Brandt from a prison inmate. A witness testified that she heard Brandt say, “when he [the inmate] got out of prison,
he’s coming to live with her and that if Ronnie didn’t like it, he could leave.” Thus, the evidence proved that Carolyn Brandt had financial, personal, and romantic motives and reasons for
burning her mobile home and killing her husband. Moreover, not only did one witness testify to Brandt’s professed motives but several witnesses corroborated Brandt’s admissions as to her
motives and reasons for setting the fire.
The circumstances surrounding how Ronnie Brandt died and the cause of death strongly support the conclusion that Carolyn Brandt administered to Ronnie an overdose of [her] prescribed
anti-depressant, which caused drowsiness, in order to render him helpless before setting the mobile home afire. While Carolyn Brandt argues the circumstantial evidence equally supports
the conclusion that Ronnie Brandt took a self-administered overdose before the fire and accidentally dropped a cigarette on some combustible item, unrefuted facts proved otherwise.
The toxicologist testified that the victim had lethal amounts of venlafaxine in his system and that his stomach contained “crushed” fragments of the drug. Brandt’s son-in-law testified that two or
three days before the fire, Carolyn Brandt gave him a mortar and pestle and told him to “get rid of it” because “it had criminal evidence in it.” Another witness who had been in the Brandts’
mobile home the day before the fire testified that Carolyn Brandt gave Ronnie some food and urged him to eat it. When Ronnie refused the food and the witness asked for it, Carolyn replied
“you don’t want none.”
Two prescription bottles for venlafaxine HCL, one filled on March 18, 2003 and one the next day on March 19, 2003, were found in a bag in Carolyn Brandt’s car. One of the bottles was empty. During the investigation Carolyn Brandt called an investigator in the case to ask for her medication back. Two witnesses testified to having observed Carolyn Brandt, a month before the fatal fire, put the contents of several pills in her husband’s coffee or tea and serve it to him. Although Ronnie Brandt died of carbon monoxide poisoning, the toxicologist testified that the level of venlafaxine in his system could have been fatal if his body had more time to have absorbed it. This circumstantial evidence that Carolyn Brandt had the opportunity to and had attempted to administer a disabling, if not fatal, dose of an anti-depressant drug to Ronnie Brandt before setting the mobile home afire, further corroborates the several witnesses to whom Brandt admitted setting the fire.