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March trial setin slaying of CHP officer

A Stockton man who is accused of gunning down a California Highway Patrol officer during an early morning traffic stop is scheduled to go to trial in March, more than two years after his arrest.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Hurl Johnson set a trial date for Columbus Allen Jr. II over the objections of two defense attorneys, who did not want their client to enter not-guilty pleas on charges handed up last month by a criminal grand jury.

Whether the public will get a peek at the grand jury proceedings, held behind closed doors, remains to be seen.

Allen's attorneys asked the judge to seal a transcript of the hearing, which otherwise would be made public, saying their client's right to a fair trial is in jeopardy.

"I think the question we have here is whether the release would make it difficult to find 12 jurors capable of acting impartially," defense attorney John R. Grele of San Francisco told the court.

An attorney for The Bee argued that the transcript may be sealed only if grand jury testimony is inadmissible at trial and so unforgettable that jurors would not be able to focus solely on evidence presented in court.

"We would argue that they have a very high burden," media attorney Rochelle Wilcox of Sacramento told the court.

The judge said he will issue a written ruling at a later date.

In most cases, defendants are held for trial after a preliminary hearing at which prosecutors lay out their case in a public forum.

The district attorney's office took its case to the grand jury in June, after the preliminary hearing was set and reset six times during the previous year.

According to court records, prosecutors called 27 witnesses to the stand, including a passing motorist who told police he heard a pop and saw the officer drop, as well as two women in Allen's life, his wife and his girlfriend.

An indictment signed by the grand jury foreman is almost identical to a criminal complaint filed by prosecutors in February 2006.

Allen, 32, is charged with first-degree murder, using a firearm in the commission of a crime and three special circumstances that could lead to the death pen-alty if he is convicted.

Allen is suspected of killing officer Earl Scott on Feb. 17, 2006, about 4:45 a.m., during a traffic stop on northbound Highway 99 near Salida.

The officer's body was found near Hammett Road, his hand gripping registration papers for a 1990 Nissan Maxima owned by Allen's wife, Bertera Allen.

The authorities have said they believe Allen was returning from girlfriend Portia Dagayray's south Modesto home that morning.

Hours after Scott's death, Allen and his wife went to the Stockton police, saying their car had been stolen. He has been in custody since then, held without bail.

The judge arraigned Allen on the charges handed up by the grand jury, eliciting not guilty pleas from reluctant defense attorneys who wanted to delay until they had more time to challenge the indictment.

Johnson also rejected a defense motion seeking to throw out the indictment on technical grounds.

He set a March 4 trial date at the request of the district attorney's office

Allen returns to court Aug. 27 for a status conference.

His attorneys are expected to bring several other challenges to the indictment in the coming months. They said they will seek to suppress evidence collected by the authorities before Allen was arrested.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be contacted at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

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