‘His day in court’: Appeals court sends murder case back to Nevada County
The appeals court that overturned a 2018 dismissal of a murder charge against Finley Fultz concurred with the lower trial court that prosecutors had made serious errors in handling evidence against Fultz.
However, it disagreed with the trial court’s assessment that the case needed to be dismissed altogether.
With the case’s dismissal overturned, it remains unclear whether the Nevada County District Attorney’s Office will retry the case against the 32-year-old Fultz, who was charged with first-degree murder in connection with the 2014 slaying of Isaac Zafft.
In its 45-page ruling issued Monday, California’s Third District Court of Appeal agreed with Nevada County Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderson that the District Attorney’s Office had lost evidence in the case, violating Fultz’s constitutional rights. The court also concurred with Anderson that investigators handling the case against Fultz had obtained self-incriminating statements from the defendant without first reading him his Miranda rights.
But the appeals court broke with Anderson’s finding in his 2018 ruling that these errors meant that any trial of Fultz would necessarily be unfair. Instead, the state justices asserted that a fair trial could be held once the violations of Fultz’s constitutional rights had been remedied. Based on this determination, the court overturned the case’s dismissal and sent the proceeding back to trial court in Nevada County.
Nevada County District Attorney Jesse Wilson said that it is still too early for his office to make a determination on whether he will retry the case, adding that his office is still assessing the situation in light of the appeals’ court decision.
The ruling brought two central standards of judicial precedent into play: the Brady rule, based off the 1963 Brady v. Maryland Supreme Court case, and the “Medina error” — an embodied principal of state case precedent dating back to the People v. Medina case considered by California’s Supreme Court in 1972.
In relation to the Brady rule — a judicial principle requiring prosecutors to disclose materially exculpatory evidence in their possession to the defense — Anderson had found that former Nevada County prosecutor Chris Walsh should have presented certain evidence in court that had to do with plea arrangements the District Attorney’s Office had made with Fultz’s co-defendants: Nathan Philbrook 37, and Daniel Devencenzi (Devencenzi died in 2019 at age 34). The appeals court agreed with Anderson on this issue.
Walsh, Wilson, and former Nevada County prosecutor Joe Alexander had spearheaded the District Attorney’s Office’s handling of the case.
The appeals court also agreed with Anderson’s finding that investigators violated Fultz’s Sixth Amendment rights to counsel when an undercover deputy was allegedly placed in Fultz’s jail cell prior to his trial. This deputy apparently recorded the defendant making self-incriminating statements about the case. Additionally, police who subsequently interviewed Fultz after his arrest had purportedly ignored the defendant’s requests for an attorney — a violation of Fultz’s Fifth Amendment rights.
In respect to both of these issues, as well as the purported violations of the Brady rule, the appeals court concurred with Anderson. In fact, the appeal court’s ruling expressed agreement with the vast majority of Anderson’s ruling.
“The People do not challenge the trial court’s findings that defendant’s Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights to counsel were violated…The People attack the trial court’s other findings arguing they were either unsupported by substantial evidence or contrary to law. We disagree in most respects,” the ruling read.
However, the most significant issue at play in the appeal was the judicial notion of the Medina error — a standard in California judicial precedent used to assess whether the violations of a defendant’s rights are so severe as to preclude any possibility of a fair trial even after the violations are remedied.
The appeals court, noting that the “standard for dismissal” under Medina is extraordinarily high, stated that Anderson’s ruling had not met this high burden of proof in dismissing the case. That means the Nevada County judge had not shown that the prosecution’s mishandling of evidence meant that even if the errors committed had been remedied, any fair trial would still be impossible.
“The premise of (Medina)…is that the constitutional infringement identified has had or threatens some adverse effect upon the effectiveness of counsel’s representation or has produced some other prejudice to the defense,” the ruling states.
“Absent such impact on the criminal proceeding, however, there is no basis for imposing a remedy (of dismissal)…the prosecution’s conduct does not rise to constitutional error.”
Instead, the justices stated that once the defendant had been duly provided with counsel and the withheld exculpatory evidence in the case presented in court, it would be possible for the proceeding to go ahead without violating Fultz’s rights.
Neither the California Attorney General’s Office — the state agency that handled the case at the appeal level — nor Fultz’s legal counsel could be reached for comment.
The Attorney General’s Office had been handling the appeal since Anderson declared a mistrial and dismissed the charges against Fultz in 2018.
Fultz, Devencenzi, and Philbrook were all originally charged in connection with Zafft’s slaying in 2014. Prosecutors say that Fultz shot Zafft after the three defendants were trying to rob a marijuana grow in Penn Valley, with Zafft unwittingly getting caught in between during the incident.
Devencenzi and Philbrook both pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter in the case and testified against Fultz in the 2018 trial.
Walsh, who resigned from the District Attorney’s Office in July, said that Monday’s ruling is an important step toward securing justice for Zafft’s family.
In comments earlier this year, Walsh expressed confidence that his office’s appeal of the case would prove successful. The former prosecutor had faced extensive criticism over his handling of the Fultz case, some of which Walsh said he deserved for “mistakes that were made” in the course of the case’s investigation.
While Walsh said that the reversal of Anderson’s ruling was a validation of his view that the case should never have been dismissed to begin with, the attorney emphasized that the true victory won on Monday is for Zafft’s family.
“It’s unfortunate how long a process like this takes, where you have a ruling three years after the judge made that decision…but this ruling is a good thing for Isaac Zafft — he’s the victim here and he deserves his day in court,” Walsh said.
Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User