Defense: Alleged murder motive against Frank Carson based on career criminal’s lies

Frank Carson and his wife Georgia DeFilippo arrive at the Stanislaus County Superior Courthouse in Modesto, Calif., Friday, June 14, 2019.
Frank Carson and his wife Georgia DeFilippo arrive at the Stanislaus County Superior Courthouse in Modesto, Calif., Friday, June 14, 2019.

The latest: Defense says prosecution fed its theory to key witness in Korey Kauffman case

Defense attorney Percy Martinez on Wednesday told a jury that the prosecution’s theory that his client, Frank Carson, is responsible for the death of Turlock resident Korey Kauffman began with a lie from “career criminal” Michael Cooley.

Cooley’s Lander Avenue home and Carson’s Ninth Street property were separated by a fence. Carson had been upset over repeated burglaries on his property, and he believed Cooley and his friends were crawling through a hole in the fence to steal antiques and scrap metal.

A few days after Kauffman went missing, Cooley told a Turlock police officer that he was threatened over the alleged burglaries on his neighbor’s property. The officer then called prosecution investigator Kirk Bunch to assist.

“From that moment on, moving forward with the investigation, Mr. Carson never had a chance,” Martinez argued in court. “Because Bunch had already made up his mind.”

Carson, a prominent criminal defense attorney in Modesto, and brothers Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal are accused of murder in Kauffman’s death. The 26-year-old Turlock man disappeared in spring 2012. His remains were found more than a year later in a remote area of the Stanislaus National Forest in Mariposa County.

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Percy Martinez, attorney for Frank Carson, arrives at the Stanislaus County Superior Courthouse in Modesto, Calif., Friday, June 14, 2019. Andy Alfaro

The murder trial in Stanislaus Superior Court began 14 months ago. The defense says this is a case of wrongful accusations by vindictive prosecutors intent on ruining Carson.

Carson is accused of being the ringleader of a criminal conspiracy to thwart thieves from repeatedly stealing from his property. The prosecution alleges that Carson recruited a group of people to send a violent message to burglars, which resulted in Kauffman’s death after he was caught in late March 2012 trying to steal irrigation pipes from Carson.

Martinez told the jurors that the prosecution’s case is based on a lot of circumstantial evidence not supported by the evidence collected and analyzed.

He said the prosecution is asking the jury to believe a series of witnesses — including Cooley — who have “an axe to grind,” admitted thieves, drug addicts or those who have received leniency in their own criminal cases in exchange for their testimony.

“There is no hard evidence,” Martinez said. “All they have is these stories. The lack of hard evidence points to the innocence of the defendants.”

In her closing argument, Chief Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira went through of series of incidents in which, she says, Carson demonstrated a pattern of “escalating” aggressive and confrontational behavior with people he believed had stolen from him.

Martinez said Cooley’s brother and sister, Rick Cooley and Linda Burns, initially told investigators in 2012 that they couldn’t identify the people they saw on Carson’s property on the day they say Kauffman went missing. Then, they testified at trial it was the defendants they saw there.

“How does their memory get better in seven years?” Martinez said in court. “This case has evolved for those individuals. They want you to believe a different story.”

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Korey Kauffman

He argued that Burns lied, saying her home wasn’t used to store stolen items. Martinez said Michael Cooley and his girlfriend Eula Keyes later admitted the stolen items were taken to Burns’ home, where they were sold.

“They set it up like they had done nothing, and we know it’s not the truth,” Martinez told the jury.

Robert Lee Woody testified that Kauffman was shot to death during a confrontation with Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal on Carson’s property in the late hours of March 30, 2012.

The defense has challenged the credibility of Woody, who once claimed that he killed Kauffman and fed his remains to pigs. In July 2016, Woody said he gave the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office false information when he told authorities he saw Carson where Kauffman was killed.

Martinez told the jurors that Woody is the man the prosecution wants them to accept, “after they know he has lied over and over again.” He said rejecting Woody’s testimony means the jury cannot convict the defendants.

“And he tells you, ‘I don’t even know why I lie. I just lie,’ ” Martinez said about Woody.

Woody, who initially was the only one charged with Kauffman’s murder, received a plea deal and will be formally sentenced to seven years and four months in prison for his role in Kauffman’s death.

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Robert Lee Woody Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department

Martinez said Woody also claimed he only heard one shot fired that killed Kauffman, who was only wearing a T-shirt. But authorities found Kauffman’s remains with a coat and a T-shirt, and the coat had two holes that appeared to be gunshot holes, according to Martinez.

Authorities analyzed a bullet slug found with Kauffman’s remains. Martinez said the bullet had DNA from Kauffman and someone else, but no DNA from the defendants.

Martinez argued the prosecution has ignored Kevin Pickett, Kauffman’s stepfather, who says he’s certain his stepson went missing on March 29, 2012. That would contradict Woody’s and Cooley’s account. Kauffman at the time was living with his stepfather in Turlock.

Charlie O’Dell told authorities he received a call from Cooley in late March 2012, a few days after he was released from jail, Marrtinez told the jury. O’Dell says he went to pick up Cooley, his girlfriend and her son in Escalon.

“They were all muddy and tweaked out,” Martinez said about O’Dell’s description of Cooley and the two others.

O’Dell claimed that Cooley said “he got rid of a body” over money owed, according to Martinez, who suggested for the jury that Cooley might be responsible for Kauffman’s death.

Martinez also spoke about police finding Cooley in possession of 13 knives that were never analyzed by the prosecution for DNA, because Bunch never read a report that indicated authorities found one hole in Kauffman’s clothes that suggested he could have been stabbed in his armpit.

“Because he had his target; it was Carson,” Martinez told the jurors. “He didn’t care about Mr. Cooley.”

Martinez finished giving his closing argument Wednesday afternoon. He will be followed Thursday by Hans Hjertonsson, Daljit Atwal’s attorney, and Jai Gohel, Baljit Athwal’s attorney.

Once the defense attorneys are done, the prosecutor will have a chance to offer a rebuttal argument, before the judge gives the jury its instructions and begin deliberations.

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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.