Man accused of shooting Newman cop enters plea in Stanislaus County murder case

The man accused of killing Newman Police Cpl. Ronil Singh during a traffic stop nearly four months ago entered a plea Thursday in Stanislaus Superior Court.

Paulo Virgen Mendoza has been charged with murder in Singh’s death. Stephen Foley, Mendoza’s attorney, entered a not guilty plea on behalf of his client.

The defense attorney also denied enhancements on the murder charge filed against Mendoza. The enhancements allege Mendoza used a gun in Singh’s death and acted with premeditation, according to a criminal complaint filed by the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office.

A special circumstances enhancement listed in the criminal complaint makes the case eligible for the death penalty. Prosecutors have not announced whether they will seek the death penalty.

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 Mendoza over near the intersection of Merced Street and Eucalyptus Avenue on suspicion of driving under the influence. Mendoza was captured near Bakersfield after a 55-hour manhunt.

DF Newman Officer Death7.jpg
FILE PHOTO — 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

On Thursday morning, Superior Court Judge Ricardo Córdova reinstated the criminal case against Mendoza.

The case had been suspended since early January, when Mendoza’s attorney told the judge that he had some doubt about his client’s mental competency. The attorney based his doubt 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. But the judge wasn’t willing to proceed with the case until a doctor could conduct a mental health evaluation and determine whether Mendoza was capable of facing charges.

The evaluation was conducted Jan. 24, a day after Mendoza’s attorney told the judge that he had instructed his client not to participate in the evaluation. Foley in February argued that the evaluation and its subsequent report violated his client’s due process rights.

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

The judge on Monday said the doctor’s report would remain sealed from the public, and he offered to issue a ruling on Mendoza’s competency without any discussion about what was said in the evaluation. Córdova warned that a public competency hearing would reveal details of a mental health evaluation.

The defense attorney said he didn’t want to stipulate to the doctor’s report. Foley said he was concerned about how the doctor came to her conclusion.

On Thursday, Foley said he had changed his mind after reviewing case law. He told the judge that he was now willing to submit to the doctor’s report without any discussion about the mental health evaluation.

Then, Córdova announced that — based on the doctor’s report — Mendoza was capable of understanding the court proceedings and assisting his attorney in his legal defense. After reinstating Mendoza’s case, the judge scheduled the defendant to return to court May 24 for a pretrial hearing.

At next month’s court appearance, the judge could schedule a preliminary hearing to determine whether there’s enough evidence for Mendoza to stand trial. The attorneys also could ask for more time to gather or review evidence before moving ahead with a preliminary hearing.

Mendoza remains in custody at the Stanislaus County Jail, where he’s being held without bail.

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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.