Defendant gets plea deal for testimony in Korey Kauffman murder case

Robert Lee Woody
Robert Lee Woody Stanislaus County Sheriff

Prosecutors on Wednesday announced they have reached a plea deal for Robert Lee Woody in exchange for his testimony against his co-defendants charged in the slaying of Turlock resident Korey Kauffman.

Woody pleaded no contest to charges of voluntary manslaughter, conspiracy to obstruct justice and arson. Once he is done testifying in the Kauffman murder case, Woody will be formally sentenced to seven years and four months in prison.

If Woody fails to fulfill his testimonial agreement, such as acquiring a new criminal charge or not testifying truthfully, he could face a maximum sentence of 12 years and four months in prison.

With Woody’s plea deal now in place, it’s anticipated he will testify in a preliminary hearing for prominent Modesto attorney Frank Carson and five others charged in the slaying. It’s expected Woody will spend about a month on the witness stand.

The lengthy preliminary hearing is in its 10th month since it started in mid-October. At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge will decide whether the defendants will stand trial.

The defense says Woody has given conflicting stories, including one account in which he claims sole responsibility for Kauffman’s death.

On July 22, Woody told the prosecutor and two investigators that he saw Carson and co-defendant Walter Wells at Carson’s property around the time he witnessed Kauffman’s death. A few days later, Woody recanted those statements, saying he felt pressured after a visit from his mother to incorporate into his statement “certain embellishments that were created by and testified to by his mother in a misguided attempt to assist in the prosecution of the case,” according to a letter from his attorney to the prosecution.

It’s unclear when Woody will begin testifying. It appeared he was ready to take the witness stand Wednesday morning after entering his new plea, but the attorneys spent the next few hours arguing whether Woody’s mother can be inside the courtroom while he testifies.

Defense attorney Martha Carlton-Magaña asked the judge to remove Beverly Woody from the courtroom, calling the mother’s involvement in the case an “undermining of justice.” She called for the mother to be investigated on suspicion of suborning perjury, obstructing justice and tampering with a witness.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira told the judge the defense allegations against Woody’s mother are false. The prosecutor said the mother visited her son at the jail before the July 22 interview. She said the mother told her son about her own testimony by showing him a piece of paper from one side of a glass partition. Authorities could not find the paper.

On July 22, Woody informed the prosecution that he had information he had not revealed before. A few days later, Woody said he did not see Carson or Wells at or near the alleged crime scene, and he provided information he knew to be false on July 22.

The prosecutor argued that everything else Woody said in the July 22 interview was exactly the same as his previous statements to investigators and his attorneys. Ferreira said Woody’s mother was confused about whether her son told her about Carson and Wells, and the Woodys were doing their best to ensure truthful testimony was given in court.

The judge has already thrown out a portion of Beverly Woody’s testimony, because the defendant’s statements to his mother minimized his involvement in Kauffman’s death and was hearsay testimony.

Defense attorney Jesse Garcia told the judge that he might recall Woody’s mother to the witness stand if the judge doesn’t throw out the rest of her testimony. He said she cannot be allowed to hear her son’s testimony, if he’s going to try to impeach her.

Timothy Rien, Wells’ attorney, said the prosecution has been kind enough to allow some of his client’s relatives, including his mother, to remain in the courtroom even though they’re listed as potential witnesses. But Beverly Woody has created this “fairy tale” showing her son this paper that can’t be found, Rien argued.

He suggested that someone else helped Beverly Woody show this information to her son, because she can’t read or write. Rien told the judge that his client is being falsely implicated in a murder. “It doesn’t get any more serious than this.”

Judge Barbara Zuniga chose not to comment on the allegations against Beverly Woody, because she said her decision is solely based on the law. “She’s still a witness; she cannot be in the courtroom.”

Authorities believe Carson led a conspiracy to thwart thieves from repeatedly stealing antiques and scrap metal from his property. He is accused of recruiting people to send a violent message, which led to Kauffman’s death.

The prosecution says Kauffman, 26, was last seen alive March 30, 2012, leaving Mike Cooley’s Lander Avenue home and heading to Carson’s property to steal irrigation pipes. Cooley’s home and Carson’s property on Ninth Street were separated by a fence. Kauffman’s remains were found in August 2013 in a remote area of the Stanislaus National Forest in Mariposa County.

Woody is a key prosecution witness. After the arrests of his co-defendants in August, Woody told investigators he saw Pop-N-Cork store owners Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal in a scuffle with Kauffman on Carson’s property in late March 2012, moments before Kauffman was shot to death.

Woody claims he tried to stop the fight and turned to walk away when he heard a gun fire. He says he then saw Kauffman with an apparent gunshot wound in his back. He has said he helped his alleged co-conspirators hide Kauffman’s body before dumping the 26-year-old man’s remains in Mariposa County.

Woody walked into the courtroom Wednesday morning wearing a black suit with a teal shirt and tie. He told the judge that he understood his rights and has agreed to the plea deal with prosecutors.

Bruce Perry, Woody’s attorney, told the judge that his client is not admitting he participated in Kauffman’s killing. Perry said Woody is simply agreeing to the deal for the less serious homicide charge. The arson charge stems from Woody’s admission that he helped burn a pickup used to take Kauffman’s remains to Mariposa County.

Prosecutors agreed to drop a murder charge against Woody in exchange for his testimony. Had Woody not agreed to the plea deal, he could have faced a trial on the murder charge and a maximum sentence of life in prison without the chance of parole.

Rosalio Ahumada: 209-578-2394, @ModBeeCourts