Defense attorney asks court to reinstate murder case in Newman cop killing

A defense attorney on Wednesday asked the court to reinstate the case against Paulo Virgen Mendoza, who is accused of murder in the shooting of Newman Police Cpl. Ronil Singh.

But a prosecutor said the case should remain suspended until a doctor can evaluate Mendoza’s mental health and the court can determine if the defendant is fit to face criminal charges.

Mendoza is accused of killing Singh during a Dec. 26 traffic stop in Newman. Mendoza is still identified in Stanislaus County jail records as Gustavo Perez Arriaga, an alias. But he’s referred to in court by his given name.

Authorities say Mendoza shot Singh shortly after the police corporal pulled him over near the intersection of Merced Street and Eucalyptus Avenue in Newman on suspicion of driving under the influence. Mendoza was captured near Bakersfield after a 55-hour manhunt.

The Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office has filed a criminal complaint against Mendoza, 32, charging him with murder and a special circumstances enhancement that makes the case eligible for the death penalty. As of Wednesday, prosecutors have not announced whether they will seek the death penalty.

The booking mug of Paulo Virgen Mendoza, 32, who was arrested Dec. 28 near Bakersfield, California, in connection with the shooting death of Newman Police Department Corporal Ronil Singh on Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department

Mendoza, wearing a red-and-white jail inmate jumpsuit, sat quietly next to his attorney as a Spanish language interpreter translated what was being said during Wednesday’s hearing. Several members of Singh’s family also attended the hearing.

The case against Mendoza was suspended earlier this month after Stephen Foley, Mendoza’s court-appointed attorney, told the judge he had some doubt about his client’s mental competency based on the brief conversation he had with Mendoza before that hearing.

Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Ricardo Córdova then suspended the case and ordered a mental health evaluation for Mendoza. The judge scheduled a hearing on Feb. 7, when Córdova could review a report of the evaluation and determine if Mendoza needed treatment to restore his mental competency.

On Wednesday, Foley told the judge that his doubts about his client’s mental competency have been addressed, and he believes Mendoza is mentally fit based on the “significant time” he has spent with his client since the Jan. 2 hearing.

The defense attorney asked the judge to proceed with Mendoza’s arraignment and schedule a pretrial hearing, since Foley was still reviewing and receiving discovery evidence collected by the prosecution.

Deputy District Attorney Jeff Mangar argued that the case should remain suspended and the mental health evaluation should be conducted as ordered. He said both sides can return on Feb. 7 as scheduled, and the judge can issue a ruling based on the doctor’s report.

The prosecutor pointed out that it was Foley who initially raised his concern about Mendoza’s mental competency. Mangar said he’s sure Foley didn’t do that for a “tactical” reason.

And Magnar said the defense attorney cannot be the final authority when it comes to a defendant’s mental competency.

“It’s not a light switch that defense counsel can turn on and off,” Mangar said in court.

The prosecutor told the judge that reinstating the murder case without a mental health evaluation could create appellate issues if Mendoza is convicted.

Newman Police Cpl. Ronil Singh was killed December 26th, 2018 during a traffic stop at Merced Street and Eucalyptus Avenue in Newman, Calif. Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department

Foley argued that it is his job to ensure that Mendoza receives a fair trial, and that it is not his desire to create any perception that his initial request to the court to suspend the case was improper or some type of gamesmanship.

“I’m attempting to vigorously defend my client,” Foley told the judge. “That’s what I’m attempting to do, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

The defense attorney said he immediately returned to court when he was certain that his client was mentally fit. Foley told the judge that his concern about his client’s mental health has now been “eliminated.”

As of Wednesday morning, Mendoza’s mental health evaluation had not yet been conducted.

Foley told the judge that he has instructed Mendoza not to participate in the evaluation. For the court to continue with the evaluation is going to be “an exercise in futility,” Foley said.

Fifth Amendment right

Judge Córdova denied the defense’s request to reinstate the criminal case Wednesday. He said the mental health evaluation will continue as ordered.

Foley said he doesn’t think that the court or a psychologist can force his client to give up his Fifth Amendment right to refuse to answer questions that could be incriminating.

“I think the effort is going to be fruitless,” Foley said about the evaluation.

Córdova told the defense attorney that if Mendoza refuses to participate in the evaluation, the court will deal with it when it receives the doctor’s report on Feb. 7.

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Rosalio Ahumada writes news stories about criminal court cases in Stanislaus County for The Modesto Bee, issues related to immigration and immigrant communities and breaking news related to crime and public safety. From time to time, he covers the Modesto City Council meetings. He has worked as a news reporter in the Northern San Joaquin Valley since 2004.