Nevada County judge drops charges against accused murderer Finley Fultz, points to prosecutor errors (DOCS)
Superior Court Judge Tom Anderson on Thursday dismissed murder accusations against Finley Fultz, ruling that Nevada County authorities “repeatedly violated” constitutional principles by ignoring or bypassing Fultz’s rights.
Barring a court filing from prosecutors, authorities will release Fultz on Dec. 28. The District Attorney’s Office said it will appeal Anderson’s ruling and ask him to shelve it pending that appeal.
Anderson cites a series of errors committed by authorities that led him to dismiss the 2014 case, which saw two of Fultz’s codefendants testify against him at his trial.
In his ruling Anderson states that prosecutors failed to disclose a package plea deal involving Fultz’s two codefendants. Additionally, authorities kept questioning Fultz after he asked for an attorney, and prosecutors lost evidence or provided it to Fultz’s attorney late.
“The court is cognizant of the fact that dismissing a homicide case, or any pending case, is a severe sanction,” Anderson states, adding later: “Yet, the requirements of our system of justice demand that all defendants receive a fair trial pursuant to our rule of law. When the government subverts the rule of law to benefit a prosecution, our system fails.”
District Attorney Cliff Newell in a statement strongly opposed Anderson’s decision.
“His analysis is not supported by the facts, evidence or current law as it relates to this case,” Newell states. “We believe he has made a horrible and incorrect decision. In the prosecution of any case ordinary mistakes occasionally take place sometimes, despite best efforts by law enforcement and prosecutors to the contrary. The law recognizes this and provides adequate remedies that protect the defendant’s rights well short of turning an alleged murderer loose on the community.”
The ruling comes in response to a motion to dismiss filed by defense attorney Greg Klein, who represents Fultz. Klein couldn’t be reached for comment.
Fultz, 29, was one of three people initially charged with murder in the July 2014 shooting death of Isaac Zafft at a Penn Valley marijuana grow. The other two men — Daniel Devencenzi and Nathan Philbrook, both 34 — pleaded guilty in April to manslaughter. Both men had to testify against Fultz, who prosecutors say was the triggerman.
In his testimony Philbrook indicated that Fultz fired the shots that killed Zafft, based on the men’s positions at the marijuana grow.
Fultz went to trial in September. Anderson declared a mistrial the following month, citing some of the same reasons he states in his Thursday motion.
Booked July 2016 into the Nevada County Jail, Fultz remained jailed Friday.
Anderson in his ruling lists several problems with the prosecution against Fultz.
Authorities placed an undercover officer in jail with Fultz in an attempt to get incriminating evidence from him. That occurred after a criminal complaint was filed against Fultz, meaning the undercover operation violated the law, Anderson ruled.
In another example Fultz invoked his right to an attorney, though authorities continued to question him — another violation, the ruling states.
Prosecutors lost a CD containing evidence of Amber Nelson planning marijuana greenhouse thefts, Anderson states. Nelson, married to Philbrook at the time, was given immunity.
Additionally, a video interview of Fultz’s two codefendants — Devencenzi and Philbrook — had no audio. A photo showing Nelson’s shoes, presumably to be used to compare to footprints at the grow, was lost.
“No explanation was offered for this loss of evidence,” Anderson states.
One piece of evidence Klein focused on was a “package deal” between Devencenzi and Philbrook. According to Anderson, an email not provided to Klein until after Fultz’s mistrial shows that Devencenzi and Philbrook both had to plead guilty, say they participated in the robbery and that Fultz shot and killed Zafft.
Anderson said that when a case depends heavily on accomplice testimony, a witness is compelled to provide particular evidence. That taints the testimony.
“In this case, the prosecution’s case against defendant Fultz rests on the testimony of accomplices,” the judge states. “Interfering with that testimony denies the defendant a fair trial under any analysis.”
Anderson called a mistrial in Fultz’s trial on Oct. 2. About a month later prosecutors filed a motion asking that Anderson step aside from the case.
Walsh in that motion argued that Anderson attended political gatherings for Newell’s opponent, Glenn Jennings, in the June race for district attorney. Anderson could have violated judicial ethics by attending those gatherings.
Weeks later an out-of-county judge ruled that none of Walsh’s claims were proved.
“Judge Anderson does not believe that Mr. Jennings was a candidate at that time, and the event was not political,” the Nov. 19 ruling states.
The motion to remove Anderson from the case paused proceedings, which resumed after the ruling in the judge’s favor.
A motion to dismiss Fultz’s case, filed by Klein, was postponed a handful of times before Anderson heard arguments on Monday.
A separate issue in the case involving Devencenzi moved in tandem through court along with Fultz’s motion to dismiss.
Attorneys wanted to again question Devencenzi under oath, a necessary move because Klein didn’t know during Fultz’s first trial about the package plea deal. Devencenzi is terminally ill, and attorneys struggled with the logistics of recording hours of his testimony.
Anderson on Thursday ruled Devencenzi’s testimony is now moot because Fultz’s case has been dismissed.
Defense attorney Kenneth Tribby, who represents Devencenzi, has pushed for his client’s release. A recently passed law restricts prosecutors from charging people with murder, or manslaughter, unless they directly caused someone’s death.
That means Devencenzi likely has served the maximum time he can in prison on any other charge he may face that stems from the marijuana grow incident.
Philbrook, who in addition to manslaughter also pleaded guilty to attempted second-degree robbery, was sentenced to 23 years in prison. He’s also expected to receive a reduced sentence.
Devencenzi is scheduled for sentencing Jan. 2. No new sentencing is scheduled for Philbrook.
To contact Staff Writer Alan Riquelmy, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4239.
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