Man involved in 2014 homicide case withdraws guilty plea
A man who has been in custody since 2014 for his connection to an alleged Penn Valley murder will withdraw his guilty pleas in the case, throwing the status of the case into doubt.
Nathan Robert Philbrook, 37, had previously pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and felony robbery in connection with the slaying of Isaac Zafft in 2014. As part of a negotiated deal worked out between Philbrook’s legal counsel and the Nevada County District Attorney in 2018, the court had dismissed a first-degree murder charge against Philbrook.
But at the defendant’s sentencing hearing on Wednesday, defense attorney David Alkire announced that Philbrook is withdrawing his guilty pleas to all charges.
This means that the case will essentially restart entirely from its beginning stages, leaving the prosecution in almost the same position it was when charges were originally filed against Philbrook, said District Attorney Jesse Wilson.
“When someone withdraws their plea, it’s back to the drawing board. They really start at that initial process again,” Wilson said.
While not commenting on how he expects Philbrook’s specific case to proceed, Wilson said that all options are on the table when a defendant withdraws a plea — meaning Philbrook could in theory seek an entirely new plea deal, or even change his plea to not guilty and ask for a jury trial.
Philbrook’s next court hearing is set for Aug. 26.
Alkire said that the motion to withdraw Philbrook’s guilty plea had to do with a letter the court received from state officials earlier this year.
This letter, sent to Nevada County Superior Court by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, informed the court that certain sentencing guidelines had not been properly assessed in the plea deal that prosecutors reached with Philbrook.
Due to a misunderstanding by all parties involved in the case regarding these sentencing guidelines, the corrections department said the recommended sentence for Philbrook would be longer than the one both prosecutors and the defense thought Philbrook would serve under the terms of the 2018 plea deal.
A complicating factor in the case had to do with the fact that Philbrook, up until recently, had been imprisoned in the state of Nevada for a conviction in an entirely separate case. When the original plea deal was reached with the Nevada County District Attorney in 2018, the defense believed that Philbrook would receive sentencing credit based on time already served in Nevada.
Instead, the letter earlier this year stated that Philbrook would not get credit in his Nevada County case for the amount of time that he had already served in the Nevada prison since 2018 — meaning that under his plea deal he could actually spend two more years in prison than his counsel had thought they had agreed to in 2018.
“Our original calculation about this sentence was incorrect,” Alkire said regarding the decision to withdraw his client’s plea. “We thought the clock was running as far as his time served when he entered into this plea deal, and it actually wasn’t running.”
Philbrook, along with defendants Daniel Devencenzi, who died at 34 in 2019, and Finley Fultz, 32, were all charged in connection with Zafft’s 2014 death. Both Philbrook and Devencenzi later testified — as part of their plea deal arrangements with prosecutors — that Fultz shot and killed Zafft during a robbery by the three defendants at a marijuana grow in Penn Valley.
Superior Court Judge Tom Anderson dismissed the charges against Fultz in December 2018, citing serious errors committed by the prosecution in the way that evidence in the case was handled as justification for the dismissal.
Cliff Newell, who was district attorney at the time, appealed Anderson’s decision to California’s 3rd District Court of Appeal, which granted a temporary stay of the dismissal. The dismissal of the case against Fultz is now being reviewed by the state Attorney General’s Office, and prosecutors are hoping for a decision reversing the case’s dismissal possibly before year’s end, prosecutors have said.
The stay of the dismissal is significant, as it not only means that Fultz could still be convicted in a new trial, but also means that he will remain in custody, at least until the attorney general comes to a decision about the matter, prosecutors have said.
Both Philbrook and Fultz remained in custody Wednesday at the Nevada County Jail without bond, records show.
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