State

Allen's attorney asks to quit case

The lead defense attorney for a man accused of killing a California Highway Patrol officer near Salida four years ago wants to withdraw from the death penalty case, court records show.

John R. Grele of San Francisco was tapped to defend Columbus Allen Jr. II against capital murder charges in September 2008, the fourth person to lead Allen's defense team.

Grele 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. But Grele withdrew the motion last month before a judge could consider it.

Stanislaus County Superior Court officials on Tuesday refused to confirm that Grele had filed the same motion in Stanislaus County. They said the court file was under review by Judge Hurl Johnson and was not available to the public.

In court Tuesday, attorneys and Johnson used vague language to discuss a hearing set for next week.

"I hope the court appreciates my situation," Grele said at the hearing.

Grele declined to comment.

If Johnson approves Grele's request, it could mean an even longer wait for a trial more than four years in the making.

Financial stress, too

In the Sacramento court filing, Grele says the case had become "too difficult" for his family, including 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."

Grele said he's only once asked to be relieved from a case in 25 years: when his "deranged client" attempted to assault him.

"Counsel cannot ethically proceed knowing that their efforts will only be used to justify Mr. Allen's conviction and sentence," Grele wrote.

Lead prosecutor Alan Cassidy declined to comment Tuesday.

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 Hammett Road near Salida, holding registration papers for a Nissan Maxima registered to Allen's wife, Bertera.

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.

The trial is set to begin July 26 in Sacramento County Superior Court.

Allen's case has been beset by delays, including five trial dates and a change of venue to Sacramento because of "pervasive publicity" in Modesto.

Allen also has made several attempts to dump his lawyers.

He first sought to have the public defender's office removed. 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 take.

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 the driver's seat.

5 years average before trial

It's common for death penalty cases to wait an average of five years before going to trial and see two or three changes in attorneys, said Merced defense attorney Logan Mc-Kechnie, who has argued 10 death penalty cases during his career.

"A death penalty case is very different," said McKechnie, who defended convicted cop killer Cuitlahuac Tahua "Tao" Rivera in Merced. "The client wants to run the case because it's their life, and you get hard-nosed attorneys ... trying to convince the client to do what it is they want to do."

McKechnie said defending a person faced with the death penalty is "emotionally consuming." He said attorneys have an ethical obligation to step down, no matter how close to a trial date, if they believe they can't defend a client to the best of their ability.

"You have someone's life in your hands," McKechnie said.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.

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