Fresno murder-for-hire trial continues despite out-of-bounds testimony
The prosecution’s case in the Fresno murder-for-hire trial nearly came to an abrupt end Thursday when a police detective violated a court order by telling jurors an informant was shot prior to the trial.
Fresno County Superior Court Judge W. Kent Hamlin clearly was upset at detective Michael Scholl’s gaffe — especially since a female juror told the court that the testimony about the informant being shot left her uneasy.
In a note, the juror told Hamlin that she has concerns as to whether she and the other jurors would be at risk if they convicted Daljit Singh on a charge of solicitation of murder.
Hamlin could have dismissed the charge or declared a mistrial that would allow prosecutors to retry the case with a new jury. But after a lengthy hearing outside the panel’s presence, Hamlin ruled that the trial could continue.
“Though it was inappropriate, it was inadvertent,” Hamlin said. “There was no intent to poison this trial.”
Prosecutor David Shabaglian breathed a sigh of relief. He will rest his case today. Afterward, attorneys for Singh will call witnesses on his behalf.
Singh, 43, is accused of asking police informant Joe Luis Yzaguirre Jr. to find someone to kill Singh’s former business partner — Fresno community leader Rama Kant Dawar — in April last year.
Shabaglian contends Singh wanted Dawar dead because a lawsuit between the two former business partners and nearly $41,000 in damages was decided in Dawar’s favor.
At the direction of the Fresno Police Department, Yzaguirre secretly taped Singh allegedly talking about hiring a hit man to “take out” Dawar.
Singh’s lead attorney, Anthony Capozzi, has acknowledge that Yzaguirre’s recordings are damaging evidence.
But he said Singh was just blowing off steam and had pulled out of the plot and never intended to kill Dawar.
If convicted, Singh, who also goes by Danny Multani, faces up to nine years in prison.
In a strange twist to the case, Yzaguirre was shot in his chest at a vacant Clovis house in November just as Singh’s trial was supposed to begin. The shooting remains unsolved and Yzaguirre’s injury delayed the trial to this month.
Hamlin has gone to great lengths to prevent the jury from learning about Yzaguirre’s shooting because the judge said it would be prejudicial toward Singh since there was no evidence to link Singh to it.
Prior to the start of the trial on June 7, Hamlin ruled that witnesses could not bring up the shooting of Yzaguirre. And when Yzaguirre testified this week, the judge made sure the informant kept his jacket on to hide a bullet-proof vest he is wearing.
Scholl, however, mentioned the shooting Thursday morning while being cross-examined by Capozzi’s son, attorney Nicholas Capozzi.
Outside the presence of the jury, Anthony Capozzi asked Hamlin to dismiss the charges, saying Scholl’s testimony was “highly prejudicial” toward Singh. Capozzi also said he believed he was winning the case and argued that a mistrial would be unfair since Singh could not afford to hire him for a second trial.
Shabaglian countered, telling Hamlin he told witnesses not to talk about Yzaguirre being shot. Fresno police detective George Imirian, the lead detective in the case, also said he told witnesses, including Scholl, not to talk about the shooting.
Initially, Hamlin pondered whether Scholl violated the court order intentionally to force a mistrial and give prosecutors “another swing at the case.” But the judge gave Scholl the benefit of the doubt, saying the detective likely didn’t reveal Yzaguirre’s shooting on purpose. Hamlin noted for the record that Scholl was on medical leave with a hand injury and was taking pain medication.
Before making his ruling, Hamlin asked the juror who voiced concerns about her safety whether she could disregard the detective’s testimony and render a fair decision. The juror said she could and was allowed to stay on the panel.
Hamlin later addressed the entire panel. He said the detective violated a court order and asked the jury to disregard Scholl’s testimony about the shooting.
“I’m counting on each of you to follow the court’s instruction,” Hamlin said. “If you can’t, please inform me.”
By Pablo Lopez