A judge on Thursday afternoon scheduled a preliminary hearing to begin Oct. 13 for a Modesto criminal defense attorney and seven others charged in the death of Turlock resident Korey Kauffman.
Initially, only two defendants wanted their four-day preliminary hearing to start later this month. But the other defendants have now agreed to proceed with the hearing, which is expected to last three to four weeks.
Attorney Frank Carson is accused of having been the ringleader in the alleged murder conspiracy. Authorities claim Carson recruited a group of people to send a violent message to those stealing from him, which resulted in Kauffman’s death.
The defense attorney and four co-defendants have been incarcerated since their arrests in mid-August. The court has postponed their arraignment so their attorneys could challenge the criminal complaint against them. That challenge was withdrawn Thursday so the defendants could enter their pleas and proceed to the preliminary hearing in about two weeks.
Carson pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, conspiracy to obstruct justice and perjury, telling the judge, “The charges are absurd and stupid.”
Judge Barbara Zuniga, a visiting judge from Contra Costa County assigned to the case, told Carson his response was disrespectful.
Carson explained to the judge that he just wanted his position on the charges to be clear to the court.
Four others charged with murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice pleaded not guilty to the charges. Those defendants are: Georgia DeFilippo, Carson’s wife; Walter Wells, a former California Highway Patrol officer; and Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal, owners of the Pop-N-Cork liquor stores in Turlock.
Three others have been charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice and being an accessory in Kauffman’s death. Those defendants are Christina Anne DeFilippo, Carson’s stepdaughter; along with CHP officers Eduardo Quintanar Jr. and Scott J. McFarlane, who have been placed on administrative leave.
These defendants and the attorneys were in court Thursday to begin a two-day hearing, where Judge Zuniga would decide whether the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office would remain on the case. The defense has argued that there is conflict-of-interest for local prosecutors because there’s been a pattern of animosity between District Attorney Birgit Fladager and Carson that goes back more than 20 years.
The judge was also supposed to decide on a motion to dismiss charges against Baljit Athwal. His attorney argued that the charges against her client should be reduced, because of a lack of evidence. And the court was supposed to determine whether to throw out a warrant used to arrest the eight defendants Aug. 14.
But Zuniga did not make decisions on any of these matters Thursday. Attorneys argued over the recusal motion for about 90 minutes, before the judge stopped the proceeding. The attorneys and the judge met privately for about 15 minutes, before Zuniga returned to her bench.
The hearing will resume at a later date, after the attorneys revise their affidavits in support of the motion to recuse local prosecutors. The judge had decided to have only one attorney on behalf of all the defendants to submit one set of documents, and scheduled the prosecution to respond to the defense by early November.
Judge Zuniga told the attorneys that a flurry of documents have been filed in this case, making it difficult for the court to keep up. More than 100 documents have been filed in this case, which had not completed arraignment for all defendants until Thursday afternoon.
At the conclusion of the preliminary hearing, the judge will decide whether there is enough evidence for the defendants to stand trial. Testimony in the lengthy hearing is expected to come from investigators and at least one cell-phone communications expert.
Before Thursday’s proceedings began Thursday morning, Stephen Schmid, an attorney on Carson’s defense team, was forced out of the courtroom by bailiffs after he tried to arrest Steve Jacobson, an investigator for the prosecution.
In this latest strange turn in the murder case, Schmid tried to make a citizen’s arrest, believing Jacobson should not be armed in the courtroom, but the judge disagreed with the lawyer’s interpretation of the law.
Initially, Schmid refused to leave the courtroom, telling the bailiffs he wanted to wait for the judge to come out of her chambers to voice his objection to Jacobson being armed with a gun inside the courtroom. The rest of the audience was still filing into the courtroom. The bailiffs told everyone to take their seats, so they could remove Schmid.
Percy Martinez, Carson’s attorney, told the judge that Jacobson should not be armed in the courtroom, because he is being sued in this county by Carson in civil court. He argued that Schmid was within his right as a citizen to make the arrest.
Martinez said Schmid asked a bailiff to assist him in making that arrest, but the bailiff instead told Schmid, “You can’t do that.” When the attorney refused to step outside, the bailiffs grabbed Schmid by the arms and ushered him out of the courtroom.
“The bailiffs have no right to do that,” Martinez argued.
He said Schmid had prepared a lot of material for Thursday’s hearing, so the attorney should be allowed to return. “If he is not brought back in here, we’re not ready to proceed, and Mr. Carson is not ready to proceed,” Martinez said in court.
The judge told Martinez that Jacobson can be armed in the courtroom, because the civil lawsuit Carson filed is a separate case. Only when a law enforcement official is a party in a case is that official barred from being armed in the courtroom. Zuniga said Schmid “was acting beyond his authority as a citizen.”
Martinez was then allowed to bring Schmid back into the courtroom. The attorney returned to the courtroom and politely greeted the judge before taking his seat next to Martinez.
In a hearing Sept. 25, Schmid stood up and told the judge that Jacobson was overly armed. Schmid argued “He’s got a trigger temper. He’s a known steroid user, and Mr. Carson is threatened” to be sitting with his back to Jacobson.
There were no other disturbances in the courtroom Thursday.
Bee staff writer Erin Tracy contributed to this report.