A trial date has been set for mid-June for the three remaining defendants accused of killing Turlock resident Korey Kauffman, including two Ceres brothers. Before the trial may begin, however, the court must hear and rule on a multitude of motions, including one to have the case dismissed and another to have the Stanislaus County District Attorney's Office removed from the case.
Defense attorney Frank Carson and Ceres brothers Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal, owners of the Pop N' Cork stores in Turlock, have been accused of murdering Kauffman in 2012. An 18-month long preliminary hearing concluded in early April with Judge Barbara Zuniga ruling there was enough cause to hold the three men over charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice. All three were formally arraigned on Monday, April 24 and entered not guilty pleas and denied any of the special allegations against them.
The district attorney's office claims Carson was angry over thefts at his Turlock property on Ninth Street which he believed were being committed by his Lander Avenue neighbor Michael Cooley. Their theory of the case has Carson - a one-time candidate for district attorney - serving as the mastermind of a criminal conspiracy that ultimately led to Kauffman's death 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 DA's office claims Kauffman was headed to Carson's property to take some irrigation pipes that had been left out as "bait" to catch thieves.
Robert Lee 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 to the Stanislaus National Forest.
The chances of the trial actually beginning on the June 19 start date are slim because one defendant - Baljit Athwal - has retained a new lawyer, who will likely need additional time to prepare his case. Jai Gohel, a San Francisco based attorney, is Athwal's new attorney, after being represented by Martha Carlton-Magana during the preliminary hearing. Gohel told Zuniga that he would do his best to be ready for the trial date, but because he has an upcoming trial in Contra Costa County he doubted he would be fully prepared.
The judge will have to make a ruling on whether or not to allow Athwal's attorney more time, because Carson has not waived time and therefore his trial is supposed to begin within 60 days of the end of the preliminary hearing.
Zuniga will also have to rule on several outstanding motions related to the case. In one motion the defense is seeking to have the case dismissed by alleging prosecutorial misconduct. A foundation of the defense's argument from the onset of the case has been that the charges by the district attorney's office were inspired more by a desire to get retribution on Carson than seeking justice. One claim alleged by the defense is that the prosecution withheld evidence that should have been turned over during discovery. An issue with late discovery was raised toward the end of the preliminary hearing and resulted in the release of Carson and the two brothers from custody on their own recognizance. In that same vein of thought, the defense is seeking to have the district attorney's office removed from prosecuting the case and having it turned over to the California Attorney General's Office.
The prosecution has filed a motion to have Carson and the two brothers remanded back into custody that will be heard on May 1.
Percy Martinez, Carson's defense attorney, has also filed a motion to throw out the testimony of Woody on the claim that he violated the terms of his plea bargain to testify truthfully. Prosecutors argued that the defense has no standing to file such a motion and Zuniga agreed.
Another motion pending is whether or not Zuniga's ruling to dismiss the special circumstances against the three men will stand or not. The prosecution claims the special circumstances are appropriate because they have accused the three men of lying in wait to kill Kauffman. Zuniga said in her preliminary ruling, however, that the evidence didn't support that allegation. Monterey County Judge Robert Moody has been selected to hear and rule on the motion. Moody will also rule on whether or not a perjury charge against Carson will remain a part of the case. If the special circumstances are re-instated in the case, the three men could face life sentences if convicted of the crimes.
In addition to Woody, who was arrested in 2014, the DA's office charged eight other defendants with being involved in Kauffman's death. Carson's wife Georgia DeFilippo was originally charged with murder and obstruction of justice, and her daughter Christina DeFilippo was charged with conspiracy and being an accessory after the fact. Zuniga ruled there was a lack of evidence to indicate the two were guilty and dismissed the charges. Former California Highway Patrol Officers Walter Wells, Scott McFarlane and Eduardo Quintanar were also charged in the case, with Wells being accused of murder and conspiracy and the two others charged with conspiracy and being accessories after the fact. Zuniga dismissed the murder charge against Wells and left the charge of conspiracy, while adding on a charge of accessory. McFarlane and Quintanar have entered not guilty pleas, but were not part of the preliminary hearing. Their case is pending.
On April 24, Zuniga ruled that Wells' case be severed from that of Carson, Athwal and Atwal. It also marked the last time Wells would be represented by Timothy Rein.