A judge has ruled that the three defendants accused of murdering Turlock resident Korey Kauffman will remain free from custody while awaiting trial.
Defendants Frank Carson of Turlock, and Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal, both of Ceres, were released on their own recognizance in December after an issue with discovery was raised. Since then, the three men have been ordered to stand trial for the death of Kauffman and the Stanislaus County District Attorney's Office sought to have them remanded back into custody.
Judge Barbara Zuniga ordered the three men released after the Stanislaus County District Attorney's Office revealed they potentially might have found more items not previously released to the defense during discovery. In making the order, Zuniga stressed that she was doing it to protect the record on appeal and not as a sanction against the district attorney's office for late discovery.
On May 8, Stanislaus County Chief Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreria asked Zuniga to reconsider her ruling for a number of reasons.
"There has been a substantial change in the circumstances in the case, mainly that the court has ordered them held to trial for murder," Ferreria said.
The prosecution also claims the three defendants engaged in witness intimidation during the course of the investigation and believes their release was done hastily and disregards the victims' bill of rights. Under Marsy's Law, the California Constitution provides several rights, including the right to have the safety of the victim and the victim's family considered in fixing the amount of bail and release conditions for the defendant.
"I feel at this point the Kauffman family has been overlooked," Ferreria told the court.
Judge Zuniga disagreed with the prosecution and said she took exception to the notion that she wasn't thinking of the Kauffman family when she made her ruling. Zuniga said the delay with discovery could have been seen as interfering with the defendants' due process and had she continued to hold them in custody the ruling on the preliminary hearing would have likely been reversed on appeal.
Zuniga said the three defendants have done nothing wrong since being released and will remain out of custody for the time being, unless circumstances change. The three men previously had to surrender their passports and were ordered to have no contact with one another and are searchable for weapons.
Carson and the two brothers, who own the Pop N' Cork stores in Turlock, have been accused of murder for Kauffman's death in 2012. The district attorney's office claims Carson was angry over thefts at his property on Ninth Street that he believed were being committed by his Lander Avenue neighbor Michael Cooley. Their 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.
Kauffman was last seen by Cooley on March 30, 2012 as he left the Lander Avenue home to go to a property on Ninth Street. The district attorney's office claims Kauffman was headed to Carson's property to take some irrigation pipes that had been left out as "bait" to catch the thieves.
An 18-month long preliminary hearing ended with the three defendants being ordered to stand trial for the murder charge. Former California Highway Patrol officer Walter Wells was ordered to stand trial for conspiracy and being an accessory after the fact. His case has been severed from Carson's and the two brothers. Scott McFarlane and Eduardo Quintanar, also former CHP officers, are also charged with conspiracy and accessory. They have not had a preliminary hearing and have entered not guilty pleas to the charges.
Also on Monday the prosecution stated they had restructured a plea deal with Robert Lee Woody to give him credit while awaiting sentnecing. Woody, who was the first to be arrested for Kauffman's killing, has agreed to a plea deal and has testified for the prosecution. During his testimony, Woody stated that Baljit Athwal caught Kauffman on Carson's property and that he was fighting with him when Woody and Daljit Atwal arrived at the Ninth Street property. Woody said Daljit Atwal joined in the fight and fatally shot Kauffman. Woody testified that he helped bury Kauffman's body in a field next to the Pop N' Cork on East Avenue in Turlock, and that later he helped move it and leave it in the Stanislaus National Forest.
As part of the plea deal Woody agreed to testify in the preliminary hearing and the trial. In return he will be sentenced to seven years and four months in prison.
Over the course of the preliminary hearing Woody's sentencing was delayed multiple times. Defense attorney Bruce Perry, who is representing Woody, told the court that the continual delays will amount to his client being behind bars for longer than originally planned. Inmates do not accrue credits at the same rate pre-sentencing as they do once they have been sentenced. Typically, an inmate must serve 85 percent of the sentence, but Perry said Woody would be serving about 87 percent.
The restructure will see Woody be credited with one day for every four days served. The date it went into effect was May 1.
Carson's attorney Percy Martinez sought to have the plea deal with Woody vacated on the grounds that Woody's statements had been coerced by investigators and that he had lied during his testimony. Martinez pointed to Woody's statement that he saw Carson and Wells on the property the night of Kauffman's death that Woody later admitted was not true and was said to back up his mother's testimony.
"Ultimately the court has to decide on the truthfulness of Mr. Woody," Martinez said. "Mr. Woody is prepared to lie to get the benefits of the plea agreement."
Zuniga said the defense had no standing as a third party to argue against the plea deal and ordered it to remain as agreed upon by Woody's defense and the prosecution.
The defense was ready to argue their motion to have the case dismissed on prosecutorial misconduct, but Zuniga said she no longer had the authority to rule on that matter and that it would have to be argued before Monterey County Judge Robert Moody. Moody is already scheduled to hear arguments on whether or not Zuniga's ruling to dismiss the special circumstances against the three men will stand. The prosecution claims the special circumstances are appropriate because they have accused the three men of lying in wait to kill Kauffman, but Zuniga said in her preliminary ruling that the evidence didn't support that allegation. That matter is set for June 5.