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Issues over discovery prompt delay in Turlock murder case
Carson Frank
Frank Carson

The pause button has been hit on the preliminary hearing that will one day determine if multiple defendants will stand trial on charges stemming from the 2012 murder of Turlock resident Korey Kauffman.

On Jan. 4 Judge Barbara Zuniga ordered a month-long recess on the case to give defense attorneys time to review audio recordings, jailhouse phone call recordings and other reports all recently handed over by the Stanislaus County District Attorney's Office.

Modesto defense attorney Frank Carson, his wife Georgia DeFilippo, former California Highway Patrol Officer Walter Wells, and Ceres brothers Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal - owners of the Pop N' Cork stores in Turlock - have all been charged with Kauffman's murder. Former CHP Officers Scott McFarlane and Eduardo Quintanar, and Carson's stepdaughter Christina DeFilippo have all been charged with being accessories after the fact and conspiracy. McFarlane and Quintanar are not part of the preliminary hearing. All have entered not guilty pleas.

Robert Lee Woody, who was the first to be arrested in the killing, has agreed to a plea deal and has testified for the prosecution. He remains in custody and is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 26.

The district attorney's office claims Carson was angry over thefts at his property on Ninth Street in Turlock that he believed were being committed by his Lander Avenue neighbor Michael Cooley. The theory of the case has Carson - the one-time candidate for district attorney - serving as the mastermind of a criminal conspiracy that ultimately led to the death of Kauffman on March 31, 2012.

According to the district attorney's office, Carson and the eight others charged in connection with the murder, worked to hide the death from authorities and thwart any investigation.

Kauffman was last seen by Cooley on March 30, 2012 as he left his Lander Avenue home to go to a property on Ninth Street. The district attorney's staff claims Kauffman was headed to Carson's property to take some irrigation pipes that - unbeknownst to him - had been left out as "bait" to catch thieves.

Woody previously testified that Atwal and Athwal beat up Kauffman on Carson's property and that one of them shot and killed Kauffman. Woody said he helped bury the body in a field behind the Pop N' Cork store on East Avenue in Turlock and then later helped move it to the Stanislaus National Forest, where it was later discovered by a pair of hunters. Cell phone records indicate Baljit Athwal travelled to Mariposa County on June 26, 2012, one day after he and his brother and Carson were contacted about a murder investigation. The area is where the body would be discovered a year later near Smith Station Road.

Woody was arrested in March 2014 and adamantly maintained his innocence until August 2015, when the other defendants were taken into custody.

The preliminary hearing, which began in October 2015 and is already the longest in the history of Stanislaus County, is now expected to continue for several more months because of the issues related to discovery.

For a defense team, discovery is their opportunity to review and examine the witnesses and evidence the prosecution plans on presenting during the course of a trial and is a foundation of a defendant's right to a fair trial. In the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Brady vs. Maryland, the justices ruled that intentional suppression of information that is favorable to a defendant by the prosecution is a violation of the defendant's right to due process.

On Dec. 22, the district attorney's office provided the defense attorneys with 81 audio recordings, information from Woody's Facebook page, and one additional report that prosecutors were uncertain on whether or not had been turned over during previous discovery. By Dec. 30, the number of items had grown to 108.

"There are over 100 hours to review and there has been no chance to review it," said Carson's defense attorney Percy Martinez. "We need more time to determine what we should have had before we rested our case."

The revelation that some pertinent evidence may have not been handed over to the defense in a timely manner prompted Zuniga to order the release of Carson, Atwal, and Athwal on their own recognizance on Dec. 22. Wells had been released a week prior on a reduced bail amount and DeFilippo has been out on bail since the early days of the preliminary hearing.

Zuniga stated at the time the order to release the defendants was done to protect the record on appeal and "not a sanction for late discovery." But that doesn't mean sanctions are not likely to follow for the prosecution.

"I intend to impose sanctions on the district attorney's office in the future, but need a full understanding of the violations," Zuniga said in court.

The defense attorneys have railed against the arrests from the onset of the case, claiming it was a way to target Carson, who had won several high profile cases.

Martha Carlton-Magana, who is representing Athwal, said it was not coincidental that the new evidence handed over goes to support the defense's claim of innocence and referred to the items recently handed over as "108 incidents of contempt."

During the Jan. 4 proceedings, Chief Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira provided an index of the 108 items, details on the 108 items, which she said included audio recordings that had already been detailed in police reports and others that were duplicates of video recordings.

Defense attorney Hans Hjertonsson, who represents Atwal, was not satisfied with being told that the audio recordings had been noted in the police reports. He said "the audio recordings give a different picture than what is in the police reports."

Ferreira told the court that the prosecution is working on a master index of all the discoverable evidence, but that the priority had been on any new discovery items.

Zuniga ordered the prosecution to report back to the court by Jan. 19 to ascertain if anything new had been discovered and ordered the hearing resume on Feb. 7. She also told the prosecution that once the master index is created someone not involved in the case should review it.

"I don't want to get together on February 7 and find additional information has come up, because this has got to end," Zuniga said.