Crime

Attorney says mental evaluation violated rights of man accused of killing Newman cop

Watch Ronil Singh’s family, supporters arrive at Stanislaus County courthouse

Ronil Singh's family and supporters arrived at the Stanislaus County courthouse on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. Singh's alleged killer had a court appearance.
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Ronil Singh's family and supporters arrived at the Stanislaus County courthouse on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. Singh's alleged killer had a court appearance.

Paulo Virgen Mendoza, who is accused of killing Newman Police Cpl. Ronil Singh, participated in a mental health evaluation to determine his mental competency. But his attorney says the evaluation and its subsequent report violated his client’s due process rights.

On Thursday morning, Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Ricardo Córdova said he received the report of the evaluation. He was supposed to review the report and determine whether Mendoza, 32, was mentally competent to face charges in Singh’s shooting death.

The evaluation was conducted Jan. 24, a day after Stephen Foley, Mendoza’s attorney, told the judge that he had instructed his client not to participate in the evaluation. The defense attorney asked the judge to postpone Thursday’s hearing until he can file a legal challenge.

“That’s why I ask you to continue this hearing and seal the report, because I believe it violates Mr. Mendoza’s rights,” Foley told the judge.

Deputy District Attorney Jeff Mangar argued that it was the defense attorney who in court called into question his client’s mental competency, which triggered the court process to determine Mendoza’s mental fitness.

“Once it’s been fired, you can’t pull back the bullet,” Mangar told the judge.

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Newman Police Cpl. Ronil Singh Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department

Mendoza is accused of shooting Singh during a Dec. 26 traffic stop in Newman. Mendoza is still identified in Stanislaus County jail records as Gustavo Perez Arriaga, an alias. But he’s referred to in court by his given name.

Authorities say Mendoza shot Singh shortly after the police corporal pulled him over near the intersection of Merced Street and Eucalyptus Avenue in Newman on suspicion of driving under the influence. Mendoza was captured near Bakersfield after a 55-hour manhunt.

The case against Mendoza has remained suspended since early January, when Foley told the judge he had some doubt about his client’s mental competency based on the brief conversation he had with Mendoza before that hearing.

But Foley returned to Córdova’s courtroom three weeks later and asked the judge to reinstate the murder case. Foley says his doubts about his client’s mental competency have been addressed, and he believes Mendoza is mentally fit based on the extensive time he has spent with his client since the Jan. 2 hearing.

The defense attorney on Thursday argued that he was acting in the best interest of his client, and his effort is to avoid any prejudice toward Mendoza. He told the judge that he’s worried the evaluation report contains information that the prosecution can use to further its investigation.

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Paulo Virgen Mendoza Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department

Judge Córdova said the report contains limited information about Mendoza’s version of events surrounding the deadly shooting of the police corporal.

Foley argued that the evaluation itself violated his client’s Fifth Amendment right to refuse to answer questions that could be incriminating. He also told the judge that the evaluation violated the Vienna Convention, an international agreement governing treaties between countries created by the International Law Commission of the United Nations.

The defense attorney did not say what specifically in the Vienna Convention was violated. Mendoza is not a U.S. citizen or a legal resident of this country. He entered the country illegally, according to authorities.

When Thursday’s hearing began, the judge and the defense attorney had a copy of the evaluation report. But the prosecutor did not have one, even though court rules require that a copy of the report be provided to the defense and the prosecution.

“I’d like to read that report right now,” Mangar told the judge.

These eight people face charges in connection with the death of Newman Police Cpl. Ronil Singh.

Foley wanted to cite case law in his efforts to seal the evaluation report, but he didn’t have those case citations with him in court. The defense attorney became agitated when he wasn’t allowed to look for the citations, but the prosecutor was allowed to cite court rules to support his argument.

The judge said he was not going to listen to any case law citations on a pending motion from the defense attorney until Foley files that motion with the court.

“I’m not going to rule on a case of this magnitude by the seat of my pants,” Córdova told the attorneys.

The judge ordered the courtroom clerk to hand the prosecutor a copy of the evaluation report, but he granted the defense’s request to seal the report until further court ruling.

Mendoza, who remains in custody at the Stanislaus County Jail, was scheduled to return to court April 8, when Foley can present his argument about the mental competency evaluation.

The Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office has filed a criminal complaint against Mendoza, charging him with murder and a special circumstances enhancement that makes the case eligible for the death penalty. Prosecutors have not announced whether they will seek the death penalty.

DF Newman Officer Death7.jpg
A Newman police officer, Ronil Singh, was fatally shot early Wednesday morning, Dec. 26, 2018, while conducting a traffic stop on Merced Street at Eucalyptus Avenue. Evidence markers sit in front of Officer Singh’s vehicle, and atop its spotlight. Deke Farrow jfarrow@modbee.com

On Wednesday night, Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Detective Cory Brown returned the shooting scene in Newman. Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Tom Letras said Brown was not analyzing any new evidence or following up on any new information in Singh’s death.

Letras said Brown was using a new device the department recently acquired. He said it’s a laser trajectory rod system designed to re-create crime scenes and determine the trajectory of a fired bullet and where people involved in the shooting were.

Brown was testing the new device in the field on Wednesday, essentially mapping the Newman crime scene, Letras said.

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Rosalio Ahumada writes news stories about criminal court cases in Stanislaus County for The Modesto Bee, issues related to immigration and immigrant communities and breaking news related to crime and public safety. From time to time, he covers the Modesto City Council meetings. He has worked as a news reporter in the Northern San Joaquin Valley since 2004.

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