Crime

Update: Emotions run high in, out of court as Carson, 2 others found not guilty

For those involved in the case, it seemed to go on forever. But it ended suddenly Friday afternoon with the jury acquittal for Modesto attorney Frank Carson, Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal, who spent the past four years accused of murder in the death of Korey Kauffman.

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.

The defense attorneys were exuberant as they streamed out of the courtroom with a few dozen supporters. They said they were happy the jury found the truth.

Carson seemed jovial as he got into a silver pickup outside the courthouse. When asked what he was going to do next Carson said, “have a drink.”

The prominent criminal defense attorney said he wished he’d had the opportunity to thank the jurors, who left before everyone else was excused from the courtroom. Deputies escorted the jurors out; they didn’t address anyone outside the courtroom.

“Thank you all,” he said. “And thank God that juries are smarter than judges.”

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Frank Carson leaves the Stanislaus County Superior Courthouse with his mother Vallie Carson, left, after a jury found him not guilty of murder in Modesto, Calif., Friday, June 30, 2019. Carson spent the past four years accused of murder in the death of Korey Kauffman. Andy Alfaro aalfaro@modbee.com

The defense maintained the case was made up of wrongful accusations by vindictive prosecutors intent on ruining Carson.

The Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office released a statement on Friday, shortly after the acquittal was announced.

“In this case, a young man lost his life over a few dollars in scrap metal,” according to the statement. “The case deserved to be decided by the People in this community and we fully respect the jury’s decision.”

District Attorney Birgit Fladager was not in the courtroom when the verdict was read.

Inside the courtroom, Judge Barbara Zuniga cautioned those in the audience that emotional outbursts would not be tolerated.

After the verdict was announced, Kauffman’s family members left the courtroom, with one screaming, “Murderers! You killed my little brother!” They declined to comment further about the case.

Baljit Athwal said the search for those responsible for Kauffman’s death should continue.

“We still want this DA’s Office to investigate this, so Korey Kauffman’s family gets justice,” Athwal said in the courthouse hallway.

The District Attorney Office said it prosecutes many murder cases each year against whichever defendant according to the evidence, whomever that person is.

“Although this was not the verdict we expected, we are proud of the extraordinary commitment shown by the jurors in hearing this trial that lasted over a year,” according to the prosecutors’ statement.

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Korey Kauffman

The jury of 10 women and two men began deliberations Wednesday afternoon and reached a verdict Friday afternoon.

A large crowd of spectators and attorneys assembled at the courthouse for the reading of the verdict, set for 3:30 p.m. Court deputies opened up a second courtroom for the overflow crowd.

Carson and brothers Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal were charged with murder, along with participating in an alleged criminal conspiracy to obstruct investigators looking into Kauffman’s death. The jury found them not guilty of all charges.

Some supporters of Carson and his co-defendants cried in the courtroom, relieved the jury’s verdict was in their favor. Kauffman’s family and friends were visibly upset; one man was ushered out of the courtroom. Others with Kauffman’s family screamed obscenities as they walked out and told the defendants they better stay out of Turlock.

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The murder trial in Stanislaus Superior Court began 14 months ago. The preliminary hearing, which was held to determine whether there was enough evidence for a trial, went on for 18 months — the longest in Stanislaus County history. The defendants were arrested and formally charged in August 2015. The investigation into Kauffman’s disappearance began in April 2012.

The prosecution told the jury that Carson was the ringleader of a criminal conspiracy to thwart thieves from repeatedly stealing from his property. Carson was accused of recruiting 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.

The defense attorneys told the jury the prosecution relied on a series of witnesses who had “an axe to grind,” were admitted thieves or drug addicts, or they received leniency in their own criminal cases in exchange for their testimony.

Jai Gohel, Baljit Athwal’s attorney, said this is why this country has a jury system that seeks out the truth.

“Finally, justice is done. The jury saw through it all and got to the truth,” Gohel said. “In the end, they saved three men’s lives today.”

Chief Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira during the trial called Carson a “bully” who was volatile, threatened others with violence and wanted to stop the burglaries without calling police. She said the defense was simply trying to divert their attention from Carson’s conduct leading up to Kauffman’s death.

Percy Martinez, Carson’s attorney, told the jury the prosecution’s theory of Kauffman’s death is based on the lies of a career criminal, Michael Cooley. Martinez said the prosecution failed to look for DNA traces on 13 knives Cooley had, even though there were holes on Kauffman’s clothes that could’ve been indications of stab wounds.

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.

Martinez was unable to be in the courtroom for the verdict announcement, but his brother Daniel Martinez took his place and sat with Carson in the courtroom.

Robert Lee Woody, the prosecution’s key witness, testified that Kauffman was shot to death during a confrontation with the brothers. Baljit Athwal is known to friends as “Bobby” and Daljit Atwal is known as “Dee.” The siblings’ last names have slightly different spellings.

Woody worked for the brothers at their convenience store, Pop-N-Cork, on East Avenue in Turlock. Kauffman was known to frequent the store as a customer.

In 2014, Woody was secretly recorded by his then-girlfriend at the request of investigators. Woody claimed that he alone killed Kauffman, pulled out his teeth, burned his hair and fed his remains to pigs. He later told authorities he lied to impress his girlfriend.

At trial, Woody testified that he helped the brothers remove Kauffman’s body from Carson’s property and buried it near the convenience store. He says they unearthed Kauffman’s remains a few weeks later and dumped the body about 90 minutes from Turlock.

Hans Hjertonsson, Daljit Atwal’s attorney, said this case should’ve ended a long time ago. He said it’s clear that the prosecution’s strategy was to overwhelm the defense with numerous unsupported allegations.

“There was so much lies and deceit, and it just surfaced The jury saw it,” Hjertonsson said about the prosecution’s case. “I am very, very pleased with the verdict.”

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Brothers Daljit Atwal, left, and Baljit Athwal, second from right, pose for pictures with their lawyers, Hans Hjertonsson and Jai Gohel, right, outside Stanislaus County Superior Courthouse after a jury found them not guilty of murder in Modesto, Calif., Friday, June 30, 2019. The brothers spent the past four years accused of murder in the death of Korey Kauffman. Andy Alfaro aalfaro@modbee.com

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

Gohel argued that Woody was told in his first police interrogation that he was facing life in prison without the chance of parole. Gohel told the jury that Woody was easily manipulated into pointing the finger at Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal and implicating Carson.

In July 2016, Woody said he gave the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office false information when he told authorities he saw Carson and former California Highway Patrol officer Walter Wells where Kauffman was killed.

The prosecutor told the jury that holes found in the back of Kauffman’s jacket that go into his T-shirt corroborated Woody’s testimony — that Kauffman was shot in the back. Ferreira also said Woody told his family about what happened to Kauffman long before he was first questioned by authorities.

Kauffman’s remains were decomposed when found by two hunters in August 2013 in the Stanislaus National Forest. Authorities were not able to determine the cause of death.

Hjertonsson told the jury that investigators fed information to Woody, leading the witness into providing details that would incriminate Carson and his co-defendants.

There were a total of nine people who were charged in connection with Kauffman’s disappearance and death. Three of the defendants were cleared of wrongdoing by the court, and two are still facing criminal charges.

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Family and supporters of Korey Kauffman leave the courtroom Friday June 28, 2019 after the verdict in the trial for Frank Carson, Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal in Stanislaus County Superior Court in Modesto, Calif. Joan Barnett Lee jlee@modbee.com

Zuniga is a visiting judge from Contra Costa County who was assigned to preside over the Kauffman case since fall 2015. On multiple occasions, Zuniga has told the attorneys this has been highly contentious case with a lot of anger between the prosecution and the defense, unlike anything she’s ever seen.

Numerous times, she stopped the proceedings because she said the attorneys’ arguments in the courtroom were becoming personal attacks. At one point during closing arguments earlier this month, the judge told the attorneys to leave the courtroom for 10 minutes. A heated debate escalated quickly, and Zuniga said she was afraid she might lose control and say something not judicious. The jury was not in the courtroom during that exchange.

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Frank Carson hugs a supporter Friday June 28, 2019 after the not guilty verdict in his trial in Stanislaus County Superior Court in Modesto, Calif. Joan Barnett Lee jlee@modbee.com

Georgia DeFilippo, Carson’s wife, was initially accused of murder along with her husband. She has since been cleared of any wrongdoing and has filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking damages, saying she and her daughter were wrongfully prosecuted.

She sat in courtroom and waited for the verdict announcement. She said she was relieved, but it will take some time accept the fact that this case is over, more than seven years after the investigation began.

“It’s like surreal,” DeFillipo said about the case ending. “I just thought it would never end.”

Bee Staff Writer Erin Tracy contributed to this news report.

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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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