A judge on Friday refused to allow a lead defense attorney to withdraw from the death penalty case against a man accused of killing a California Highway Patrol officer more than four years ago near Salida.
John R. Grele of San Francisco joined Columbus Allen Jr. II's defense team in January 2007 and became lead counsel in September 2008.
During Friday's two-hour hearing, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Hurl Johnson said it would be against the interest of justice to allow Grele to step away from the case now as it nears its July 26 trial date.
"Mr. Grele has been on this case for three years now," Johnson said. "He knows the case better than anyone."
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Allen, 34, of Stockton is charged with killing CHP officer Earl Scott about 4:40 a.m. Feb. 17, 2006. The slain officer was found at the edge of northbound Highway 99, just south of the Hammett Road exit, holding registration papers for a Nissan Maxima registered to Allen's wife, Bertera.
Had Johnson approved Grele's request, it could have further delayed the trial.
After the hearing, Grele and lead prosecutor Alan Cassidy each declined to comment about the ruling.
Grele had filed a motion to withdraw from the case in Sacramento County Superior Court, where Allen will be tried after getting a change of venue from Stanislaus County.
Personal reasons cited
In a Sacramento County court filing, Grele said the case had become "too difficult" for his family, which includes three young children. He wrote that his future extended absences to defend Allen and a lack of funding for Allen's defense have generated "additional stress."
Allen appeared stoic as the judge announced his decision. He entered the courtroom wearing a red and white jail-inmate jumpsuit and glasses. He sported two pigtails in his hair, tied with lime-green and red rubber bands.
The hearing started with Grele submitting more papers supporting his motion. He asked the judge to have those documents sealed from public view.
Johnson stepped into his chambers to review the submitted documents. He said at the end of the hearing that those documents will remain sealed.
As the judge reviewed the documents, Grele and Cassidy left the courtroom for a few minutes to discuss the material, which Grele described as personal.
In the meantime, Allen sat quietly in his chair inside the courtroom, lightly pulling on the small goatee growing from his chin. Sheriff's deputies also remained in the courtroom.
When the judge and the attorneys returned, Johnson said he needed to question Allen and his attorneys about the submitted documents privately, because it might violate the attorney-client privilege.
The judge ordered everyone else, including the prosecuting attorneys, to leave the courtroom while he questioned Allen and his attorneys. The judge allowed everyone to return 35 minutes later.
Cassidy then told the judge that allowing Grele to withdraw now would harm the ability of the Stanislaus County district attorney's office to prosecute Allen.
He said there are many law enforcement officials who will be called to testify in this trial, and some of them are moving away or will have trouble recalling details from an incident four years ago.
"Quite frankly, we've been going through this (for) years and we're losing them," Cassidy said. "Recollections are fading."
Disputes fellow attorney
Grele disagreed, saying most of the key evidence in this case is scientific and doesn't change over time. He mentioned gunshot residue and evidence collected from Allen's seized computer.
"The case against Mr. Allen doesn't necessarily rise or fall on recollection," Grele told the judge.
Johnson said he appreciated Grele's personal issues, but said, "Everybody has family situations, and we have to deal with them."
The judge also pointed to attorney Martin Sabelli, who is assisting Grele, and said he should share the workload.
In court papers, Grele said he's only once asked to be relieved from a case in 25 years: when his "deranged client" attempted to assault him.
When asked after Friday's hearing whether he's confident he can defend Allen, Grele said, "I can't really speak about it right now."
The district attorney's office has charged Allen with first-degree murder and three special circumstances that could lead to the death penalty. He is being held without bail.
Allen's case has been beset by delays, including five trial start dates and a change of venue because of "pervasive publicity" in Modesto.
Allen also has made several attempts to replace his lawyers.
He first sought to have the public defender's office removed from his case. A judge turned Allen down, but the office eventually declared a conflict of interest and opted out. The scenario repeated itself with a firm that is retained to handle cases the public defender's office cannot.
Modesto defense attorney Ramon Magaña was the third attorney to take the case, but Allen persuaded a judge to release him. Grele, who had signed on to help Magaña with death penalty issues, took over the case.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2394.