Challenge to indictment in CHP slaying rebuffed

A proposed challenge to the indictment of Columbus Allen Jr. II hit a roadblock Monday when a judge said the Stanislaus County Superior Court need not identify the grand jurors who said the Stockton man must stand trial for the murder of a California Highway Patrol officer.

Defense attorneys wanted the information because they doubt that Allen, who is black, can get a fair hearing in the Central Valley.

Allen's attorneys would like to challenge the makeup of the grand jury to ensure that it reflects the diversity of the community, but they have an uphill battle because the court does not keep racial or ethnic data about the people who serve on the panel.

"We're entitled to explore and investigate," said defense attorney John R. Grele of San Francisco, a death penalty expert who is co-counsel in the case.

An attorney who represented the court's jury commissioner argued against the release of such information, citing the privacy rights of jurors, who are appointed for a year and hear criminal cases behind closed doors.

Allen's attorneys would use the information to determine the racial makeup of the 16-member panel but would not reveal the jurors' names to the public.

Judge Hurl Johnson said the defense had not proved its need for the information, but he said the court must turn over documentation about its selection process, adding that he will consider the matter again if the defense returns with a more compelling argument.

Allen, 32, is suspected of killing officer Earl Scott on Feb. 17, 2006, during a traffic stop on Highway 99 near Salida. A passing motorist heard shots and found Scott lying at the edge of the highway, gripping registration papers from a 1990 Nissan Maxima registered to Allen's wife.

Allen 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 penalty. He has pleaded not guilty.

The judge seemed eager to keep the case on track for trial, scheduled to begin March 3. Johnson told the defense and the prosecution to come up with lists of things they plan to litigate before trial and suggested that they begin working on jury questionnaires.

Likely defense challenges include a motion to suppress evidence obtained when Allen's wife, Bertera, turned over a computer to authorities before a judge signed a search warrant, as well as statements Allen made to police before he was arrested.

Allen returns to court Nov. 5 for further proceedings.

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