Nevada County judge to remain on marijuana grow murder case
An out-of-county magistrate has ruled that Judge Tom Anderson will stay on the Isaac Zafft murder case, ruling against local prosecutors who claimed the Nevada County judge was politically biased and should be removed.
Attorneys in that marijuana grow homicide case, which in October ended in a mistrial, are scheduled to appear today before Anderson on a motion to dismiss Finley Fultz’s accusations. Fultz, 29, faces a murder charge in connection with Zafft’s shooting death.
Today’s hearing was postponed weeks ago, after Assistant District Attorney Chris Walsh filed his request to have Anderson removed.
Walsh claimed Anderson attended political gatherings for Glenn Jennings, who in June ran against District Attorney Cliff Newell. That attendance, Walsh alleged, could have violated a judicial ethics code.
“None of the judicial actions or determinations identified by the People as indicative of Judge Anderson’s alleged bias, rise to the level of proof of bias or partiality,” Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Steve White ruled. “Moreover, Judge Anderson’s brief explanation as to the bases of each ruling, and denial of bias, establish no bias in that respect.”
Defense attorney Greg Klein, who represents Fultz, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Walsh, in his Nov. 1 filing, claimed that Anderson attended political gatherings for Jennings at the home of Joey Jordan, a political consultant. Additionally, Walsh said that Anderson had private discussions with defense attorneys in the case who supported Jennings.
According to White’s ruling, Anderson responded to Walsh’s allegations in writing. In his response, Anderson said he attended a going-away party for a newspaper reporter. Jennings was at that event.
“Judge Anderson does not believe that Mr. Jennings was a candidate at that time, and the event was not political,” White’s Nov. 19 ruling states.
The party was for The Union Staff Writer Liz Kellar, who left the newspaper in December 2016. She returned September 2017 to The Union. Jennings announced in February 2018 he’d run for district attorney.
“And, to be clear, the going away party where both Anderson and Jennings were in attendance at my house occurred a year before Jennings announced he was running for elected office,” Jordan said in a message. “By my math it could have hardly been considered a political event.”
Walsh declined to comment.
“We do not always agree with a court’s ruling but, once made, we respect it and move on,” Newell said in an email. “We will continue to seek justice for the victim, Isaac Zafft, in this case.”
White also states that Anderson acknowledged he speaks to attorneys in the Nevada County Courthouse, along with prosecutors, public defenders and officers, among others.
“Judge Anderson acknowledges two (private) communications in the above criminal action, both of which the People were aware and did not object,” White states. He added later: “One meeting dealt with defense counsel’s ‘behavior’ and issues of his continuing representation of the defendant in the criminal action.”
Anderson on Nov. 1 said he’d meet privately with Klein, who that day called Walsh a liar and a cheat, to discuss behavior.
Authorities claim that Fultz, Nathan Philbrook, 34, and Daniel Devencenzi, 33, robbed a Penn Valley grow in July 2014. During that robbery Fultz fatally shot the 27-year-old Zafft.
Caught and brought to Nevada County, all three men initially faced murder charges. Philbrook and Devencenzi pleaded earlier this year to manslaughter and testified against Fultz. Philbrook, who also pleaded to attempted second-degree robbery, was sentenced to 23 years in prison. Devencenzi was expected to receive an 11-year sentence.
A change in state law means Philbrook and Devencenzi likely will receive lesser sentences. However, no ruling has occurred on a request by Walsh to remove Anderson from their cases.
Defense attorney Kenneth Tribby, who represents Devencenzi, said his client’s case remains on hold.
“Once these matters are resolved, I believe we will go forward with the sentence reduction as to Mr. Philbrook,” said defense attorney David Alkire, who represents Philbrook.
Fultz, who went to trial on his murder charge, had a mistrial declared in early October. A new trial date hasn’t been set.
To contact Staff Writer Alan Riquelmy, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4239.
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