Prominent Modesto attorney Frank Carson and two co-defendants charged with murder walked out of Stanislaus County Jail Thursday evening after an angry judge blasted prosecutors and released them pending the completion of their preliminary hearing.
Carson and brothers Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal, accused in the killing of Turlock resident Korey Kauffman in March 2012, have been held in custody without bail since their arrests in August 2015. Judge Barbara Zuniga ordered their release after prosecutors with the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office revealed Thursday morning they had additional evidence in the form of recorded conversations that had not been turned over to the defense.
“Every dog has his day; we haven’t had ours yet but we will,” Carson said following his early evening release, pausing from long tearful hugs with family and friends to talk briefly with media. Asked whether he felt vindicated by the judge’s decision, Carson said, “We will be, I guarantee that.”
In a move that received applause from the defendants’ supporters in court, Zuniga said she was doing this as a “necessity to protect the integrity of the proceedings.”
Carson’s attorney, Percy Martinez, said earlier Thursday, that there was more discovery by the prosecution not provided to the defense, which necessitated more time for preparation. “The judge took it against the people because it was their fault for this extra time it is going to take to prepare for witnesses.”
Michael Vitello, a professor for the McGeorge School of Law, called the action “beyond bizarre. This is out in the Netherlands.”
Deputy District Attorney John Goold, spokesman for the DA’s Office, issued a statement Thursday afternoon that read in part: “While auditing discovery in this case, one of our investigators located some audio recordings that may or may not have been provided within the previous 1,000 disks discovered to the defense. There was no time to confirm whether these recordings had been previously disclosed or not. Out of an abundance of caution, we raised that concern with the court this morning and copies were provided to defense counsel.
“Due to the delay surrounding this issue, this afternoon the judge felt compelled to release the in-custody defendants on their own recognizance.”
Zuniga said in court Thursday afternoon that the release of the three men was not a sanction against the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office, but that she does plan to level sanctions after doing some more research.
“The judge indicated she is researching whether other sanctions may be appropriate for late discovery if it turns out all the recordings were not previously turned over,” Goold said.
Prosecutors left court quickly without comment. A car was driven from the front parking lot of the former U.S. Bankruptcy Court on 12th Street, where the preliminary hearing is being held, around to the building’s rear. It was pulled into a gated area, and the gate was closed while Chief Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira, who’s been prosecuting the case, left the building and entered the car.
Bee staff gestured and asked that a window be rolled down so that Ferreira could comment on what had transpired, but the car was driven off. Goold said District Attorney Birgit Fladager was traveling with family and unavailable.
Carson and the two brothers were forced to surrender their passports under the condition of their releases. The judge also asked them to surrender any firearms, but all three said they didn’t have any.
The preliminary hearing, believed to be the longest in Stanislaus County’s history, is scheduled to resume Jan. 3. At its conclusion, Zuniga is expected to determine if there is enough evidnce to hold the defendants for trial.
Martinez said his client “was crying” when he told Carson earlier Thursday the news he’d be free.
Authorities believe Kauffman, 26, was shot to death in late March 2012 after he was caught trying to steal scrap metal from Carson’s Ninth Street property in Turlock. Kauffman's remains were found in August 2013 in a remote area of the Stanislaus National Forest in Mariposa County.
Kauffman’s mother, Terri Hutson, said she was dismayed to hear of the judge’s decision, but will wait and see how the case develops.
“He gets to go sit at his table at his family and he gets to be happy and laugh and have Christmas dinner and my son is buried in a hole,” she said. “I'm a little hurt and angry.”
Carson is being prosecuted with his wife, Georgia DeFilippo; her daughter, Christina Anne DeFilippo; Athwal and his brother Atwal; and Wells. Christina Anne DeFilippo is charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice and being an accessory; the other defendants each face a charge of murder in Kauffman’s death.
Family members of Athwal and Atwal, including their mother, awaited their release Thursday evening. They said they cried all the way to the downtown jail, but otherwise declined comment.
Before entering court Thursday afternoon, Georgia DeFilippo, Frank Carson’s wife, said because she’s a co-defendent, she has not been allowed to speak with her husband since his incarceration. Asked the first thing she’d say to him, she replied, “What do you want for dinner?”
She brought their dog, Sweetie Pie, to see him at the court.
“I think it’s a blessing,” she said. “I’m very happy Frank will be home.”
Thursday’s ruling came nine days after former California Highway Patrol Officer Walter Wells, 35, was released on $50,000 bail after a judge granted a request to drastically reduce his bail from $10 million.
Robert Lee Woody was the only person charged in Kauffman’s death for more than a year before he decided to cooperate with the prosecution. He agreed to a plea deal in exchange for his testimony.
The prosecution says Kauffman was last seen alive March 30, 2012, leaving Carson neighbor Michael Cooley’s home and heading to Carson’s property to steal irrigation pipes. Woody claims that brothers Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal were fighting with Kauffman on Carson’s property when Kauffman was shot to death.
The brothers own the Pop-N-Cork liquor store in Turlock, and Woody worked at the store. Woody said he helped bury Kauffman’s body near the liquor store and then helped dump the body in the Stanislaus National Forest a few weeks later.
Prosecuted separately are former CHP Officers Eduardo Quintanar Jr. and Scott McFarlane, who are charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice and being accessories in Kauffman’s death. Quintanar and McFarlane were initially placed on administrative leave when they were arrested in August, but no longer work for the CHP.
Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327
The Bee’s Erin Tracy and Garth Stapley contributed to this report.