A year after arrests, preliminary stage of Kauffman slaying case drags on

Robert Lee Woody
Robert Lee Woody Stanislaus County Sheriff

It’s been a year since Modesto attorney Frank Carson and seven others were arrested in connection with the slaying of Turlock resident Korey Kauffman. Six of those defendants, including Carson, asked to have their preliminary hearing begin as soon as possible, so a judge could decide whether there is sufficient evidence for the defendants to stand trial.

The hearing began in mid-October and continues into its 10th month. The case has ramped up in the past few weeks as the prosecution’s key witness, Robert Lee Woody, agreed to a plea deal and began testifying against those accused of being his co-conspirators.

His testimonial agreement with prosecutors became a point of contention Wednesday as the defense began its cross-examination.

Authorities initially charged Woody with murder and conspiracy to obstruct justice, the same as most of the defendants in the Kauffman case. If convicted, Woody would have faced a maximum sentence of life in prison. Instead, Woody will be sentenced to seven years and four months in prison. But he has to comply with the prosecution’s agreement.

If Woody lies on the witness stand or refuses to testify, “then all bets are off,” said Bruce Perry, Woody’s attorney.

Woody has already testified that he lied numerous times to investigators before he decided to cooperate with the prosecution. He admitted that he lied July 22 when he told the prosecution that he saw Carson and former California Highway Patrol Officer Walter Wells at the scene where he says the crime occurred.

Gerald Uelmen, professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law, said Woody’s lies to authorities will be a problem for the prosecution if the case goes to trial. “That’s certainly going to affect his credibility in front of a jury,” he said.

But prosecutors have to weigh the importance of a witness’s testimony to the case against any perceived credibility challenges, the law professor said.

“I think it’s quite common,” said Uelmen, who is better known for serving on the defense team in the O.J. Simpson murder case. “Very often (prosecutors) have to give (a defendant) a deal to get the testimony they need.”

The prosecution believes Carson led a conspiracy to stop 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.

Woody has testified that Carson told him about the thefts on his Turlock property and gave him the name and address of the attorney’s neighbor, Michael Cooley, who was believed responsible for the thefts. Testimony has indicated that Carson believed his neighbor was allowing people to enter the attorney’s property to steal items.

The prosecution says Kauffman, 26, was last seen alive March 30, 2012, leaving Cooley’s home and heading to Carson’s property to steal irrigation pipes. Woody claims that brothers Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal were fighting with Kauffman on Carson’s property when Kauffman was shot to death.

The brothers own the Pop-N-Cork liquor store in Turlock, and Woody worked at the store. Woody said he helped bury Kauffman’s body near the liquor store and then helped dump the body in the Stanislaus National Forest a few weeks later.

The defense says Woody has given conflicting stories, including one account in which he claimed sole responsibility for Kauffman’s death during a secretly recorded conversation with his girlfriend. Woody has testified that he was drunk and high on drugs when he confessed to killing Kauffman.

Plea of no contest

Woody pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter, conspiracy to obstruct justice and arson for burning a vehicle he says was used to move Kauffman’s body. He will be formally sentenced once he is done testifying in the case.

Judge Barbara Zuniga, a visiting judge handling the Stanislaus County murder case, insisted on using a plea form from another county. Judges in this county read off a script when defendants agree to a plea deal, but Zuniga felt it was better for Woody to waive his rights to a trial in writing. The form she used includes the maximum sentence for the charges to which Woody pleaded no contest, which was 12 years and four months in prison.

Woody’s attorney said he can understand why the sentence of 12 years and four months might seem confusing. Perry said all it means is that Woody could face additional prison time if he does not obey all laws, such as fighting with a fellow inmate at the jail. But that would be at the discretion of the District Attorney’s Office.

The maximum sentence of 12 years and four months is listed on the plea form, not in Woody’s signed testimonial agreement filed Aug. 3 in Stanislaus Superior Court.

Obeying all laws is part of Woody’s agreement with prosecutors. He also has to be available to the prosecution, tell authorities where he is, attend all necessary court appearances in the Kauffman case and waive all appellate rights. In the testimonial agreement, the prosecution emphasized in bold print that Woody must testify completely and truthfully at all hearings, trials or retrials in the case.

Woody’s attorney said his client cannot lie on the witness stand. If he does, the prosecution “could decide to undo the plea agreement altogether. They’re not going to let him get away with that,” Perry said.

Prosecutors could also seek a charge of perjury against Woody if he lies in court. But Perry said avoiding a life sentence is more of an incentive for a defendant to tell the truth.

Law professor Michael Vitiello said it does seem unusual that Woody could face additional prison time for what some people might consider minor violations to the testimonial agreement. But prosecutors want to make sure the defendant gets on the witness stand and complies with all portions of the testimonial agreement.

Vitiello, however, thinks that Woody’s seven years and four months sentence is an indication that the prosecution believes it has a strong case against the other defendants. He said Woody could have received a more favorable deal if the prosecution believed it didn’t have such a strong case.

“They didn’t give (Woody) such a cushy deal,” said Vitiello, who specializes in criminal cases and court procedure at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. “Seven years is a good chunk of time.”

Rosalio Ahumada: 209-578-2394, @ModBeeCourts

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