When defense attorney-turned-murder defendant Frank Carson left a Stanislaus County courtroom Monday morning, one of three scenarios would play out:
Deputies could have led him away in shackles, returning him to the county jail where he and other defendants stayed until being released shortly before Christmas.
Or he would be a free man, all charges dismissed. He could have traipsed a few blocks away to the Civil Court clerk’s office to file a lawsuit against District Attorney Birgit Fladager, the county and anyone else who interrupted his career as a criminal defense attorney and besmirched his reputation. Wrongful arrest. Malicious prosecution. Defamation of character. His supporters alleged all of the aforementioned.
Or he could simply walk out as he walked in, free on his own recognizance but now one who will be tried for murder, obstruction of justice and perjury.
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That the latter happened – Judge Barbara Zuniga held Carson and two others over for trial for the murder of Korey Kauffman – has huge ramifications regardless of the trial’s outcome. No matter how it ultimately ends, the consequences already are life and career altering. If Carson, Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal are convicted, they’ll spend decades or perhaps the rest of their lives in prison.
If acquitted, Carson’s livelihood as an attorney still will have taken a tremendous hit. The 18-month-long preliminary hearing itself was the longest ever in Stanislaus County.
Conversely, had Zuniga ruled the DA didn’t make its case in the preliminary hearing, Fladager’s career would have been the one in jeopardy. Her department is prosecuting the man who challenged her for her job in 2014. Carson’s supporters believe she charged him as payback. The investigation of Carson, though, began in 2012 – a year before he filed to run. Fladager won easily. He was charged 14 months later. During the preliminary hearing, prosecutor Marlisa Ferreira alleged he ran for DA primarily to impede the investigation.
Now, being held over for trial quells any chance Carson had for suing for big bucks to regain his reputation, which was extremely remote to begin with, according to McGeorge School of Law Prof. John E.B. Myers.
“The odds of winning malicious prosecuting cases are almost nonexistent because prosecutors have so much discretion of who they charge,” Myers said.
It is as simple as believing they have a reasonable chance of getting a conviction, he said.
But losing such a case and costing the taxpayers millions of dollars certainly would be ammunition for someone to oppose Fladager is 2018, should she choose to seek a fourth term. Carson will be arraigned April 24 and could refuse to waive time, meaning the case could go to trial within 60 days and possibly be over in time to affect the outcome of an election.
One candidate, Modesto criminal defense attorney Patrick Kolasinski, filed March 31 to run for DA, citing the department’s inefficient management along with the problems it has had with discovery – as has been a problem in the Carson case – and poor morale.
Politicians, including DAs, are elected officials who run on their records to get re-elected. The decisions they make today can be gold mines for their opponents tomorrow. Every vote Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, makes can be used against him in the court of public opinion.
State Sen. Anthony Cannella took no risk in voting for the gas tax last week because he terms out in 2018. He negotiated to get $500 million in projects for the valley ($400 million to bring the Altamont Corridor Express train to Ceres and Merced, and $100 million for the UC Merced Parkway), and could do so because he felt they were good for the valley and also because he has no plans to run for future political office.
But in the case of longtime legal opponents Carson and Fladager, the stakes just intensified.