Editorials

Carson Case: How Stanislaus County DA could lose in the court of public opinion

Kauffman Murder Press Conference

Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson address arrests in the murder Korey Kauffman at the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department in Ceres California on August 14, 2015. (John Westberg/jwestberg.com)
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Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson address arrests in the murder Korey Kauffman at the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department in Ceres California on August 14, 2015. (John Westberg/jwestberg.com)

As the most exhausting local court case in memory finally winds toward a close, it feels almost like the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office is on trial as much as Frank Carson.

D.A. Birgit Fladager’s reputation is on the line.

If her capable prosecutor, Marlissa Ferreira, convinces jurors that Carson and his co-defendants are guilty in the 2012 slaying of small-time thief Korey Kauffman, Fladager might save some face. If Carson and brothers Baljit Athwal and Daljit Atwal walk, Fladager’s once-shining star will be tarnished — if it isn’t already, in the court of public opinion.

Five long years ago, Carson — a prickly but often successful Modesto defense attorney who seemed to take pleasure in annoying, and sometimes beating, Fladager’s prosecutors — publicly denied rumors tying him to Kauffman’s death, even as Carson prepared to run against Fladager. She easily beat him at the polls, then had him arrested a year later, in 2015, along with eight others accused in a deathly conspiracy.

Some people saw a political prosecution. It would be awfully convenient for the district attorney to use the tools at her disposal to remove a sharp thorn in her side, right?

On the other hand, if Carson really helped arrange Kauffman’s murder as a macabre warning to others thieving from his Turlock property, shouldn’t Fladager’s office throw everything they have at him?

And they did, although few could have predicted what a long, strange path this case would take.

Preliminary hearings in some cases take a few hours. Carson’s took an unheard-of 18 months, and the trial has dragged on 14 months. If you got tired of reading about this case a year or more ago, you’ve surely got company.

Fladager’s team absorbed some bruises along the way.

Some were downright embarrassing, like when the judge castigated the prosecution for failing to share evidence with defense lawyers, or when she released Carson and the others from custody even before the preliminary hearing concluded. Or when she scolded Fladager for not showing up much in the courtroom for one of her office’s most important cases. Or when Carson’s wife and her daughter, among the original eight suspects, were cleared of wrongdoing and filed a lawsuit against the county. Or when a former highway patrolman, also among the original eight, also sued, claiming malicious prosecution.

With all those black eyes, why keep going? Especially when your case entirely relies on Robert Lee Woody, the prosecution’s most important witness. This is the guy who once bragged, to impress a woman, about killing Kauffman himself and feeding his remains to pigs. What a guy. No wonder defense attorneys are having a field day tearing into his credibility.

Is Fladager, the darling of Scott Peterson’s prosecuting team in 2004, so blinded by fury and pride that she can’t admit the Carson case was a loser? Shutting this thing down long ago would have saved untold amounts of taxpayer-funded resources. Keeping it going like this, at a time when her office is hemorrhaging attorneys and she can no longer prosecute some minor crimes, seems excessive. It’s not unreasonable for people to ask whether their tax dollars are being used in the best possible way.

If jurors in coming days return with a guilty verdict, Fladager may rightly smile with satisfaction. If not, she will have to answer to voters, although not until 2022. Either way, her reputation is paying a price.

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