Defense requests delay in CHP murder trial

Defense attorneys want to delay the trial of Columbus Allen Jr. II, the Stockton man accused of killing a California Highway Patrol officer during an early morning traffic stop two years ago, because prosecutors recently turned over a host of information in the case.

Attorneys Ramon Magaña of Modesto and John Grele of San Francisco are expected to argue against a March 4 start date this morning in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

In legal papers, the lawyers said their recent requests for follow-up information netted 2,949 pages of investigative reports from the district attorney's office as well as 24 hours of taped conversations between Allen and jailhouse visitors.

Some of the information dates back to 2006, according to court records. The defense contends that it should have been turned over long ago, particularly because Allen, 32, could be sentenced to death if he is found guilty of shooting officer Earl Scott about 4:40 a.m. on Feb. 17, 2006.

The attorneys say Allen's right to effective counsel would be jeopardized and could become grounds for a reversal if the trial proceeds and Allen is found guilty. Most death penalty cases take several years to get to trial, and convictions are automatically appealed to the California Supreme Court.

"If you get them to trial quickly, they are going to be reversed," Magaña said.

Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley said recent disclosures in Allen's case are "collateral" information -- background information about the protocols used in forensic testing and transcripts of statements that previously were provided on audiotapes -- rather than new evidence.

She agreed that many murder cases take far more than two years to get to trial, but said Allen's case should proceed as planned.

"We think that many of these cases delay unnecessarily," Shipley said. "So it is a benefit to the community, and to the victim's family and to the witnesses who have to be available, that this get done."

Prosecutors laid out their case against Allen in June, during a three-day hearing before a grand jury.

According to a transcript of that proceeding, the authorities think Allen shot and killed Scott because he was driving on a suspended license and had a gun when he was stopped on northbound Highway 99, just south of the Hammett Road exit.

As a felon who had been convicted of transporting cocaine in 1998 and auto theft in 1999, possession of a weapon was enough to send Allen back to prison.

Scott's body was found after a passing motorist called 911.

The investigation focused on Allen because Scott was gripping registration papers from a 1990 Nissan Maxima owned by Allen's wife.

The authorities said cell phone records place Allen in the vicinity, though Allen told a detective that he spent the night at a friend's house.

Forensic testing showed the presence of gunshot residue in the Nissan and on a sweat shirt Allen was wearing a few hours after Scott was killed.

Judge Hurl Johnson, who set the trial date months ago, has warned attorneys repeatedly that they must be ready to pick a jury in March.

Numerous challenges by the defense -- including a change of venue motion that would seek to move the trial to another county, where potential jurors have not been exposed to news accounts of Scott's death -- have yet to materialize.

Magaña said a fair trial is more important than a fast trial. He said he and Grele have been unable to draft pretrial motions because they have been engaged in protracted negotiations with the district attorney's office over forensic testing and the release of investigative reports.

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

Related stories from Modesto Bee