The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office will not contest a new trial bid by a trio of murder defendants who allege a secret deal engineered by then-prosecutor and DA candidate Noah Phillips led to their convictions in the 2016 killing of a south Sacramento man.
It will be up to a judge to decide whether to grant a new trial to Vicky Rainone, Ragua Sharma and Rohini Kumar in the August 2016 killing of Kumar’s husband, 60-year-old Ashok Kumar, but prosecutors’ response outlined in a 35-page motion filed Friday in Sacramento Superior Court appears to all but assure a retrial.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Curtis Fiorini will hear argument for a new trial July 27.
“Procedural fairness and confidence in the resulting verdict is of the utmost importance to the People’s quest for justice,” supervising Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet wrote in the Friday motion. “As such, the People ask that this court grant a new trial for defendants without prejudice.”
Bladet stopped short of calling for murder charges to be dismissed, but said in her motion that prosecutors agreed that a new trial should be granted because of Phillips’ “failure to disclose evidence.”
Rohini Kumar initially told detectives that she and husband, Ashok, were the victims of a home invasion robbery in the 2016 crime. Three people in masks stormed their Grandstaff Drive home, tied up Ashok Kumar and fought with her husband, she said.
But investigators later suspected Rohini Kumar of setting up the break-in with Sharma as payback for her husband’s suspected affair with another woman.
Investigators said Kumar and Sharma were in an affair of their own. Sharma allegedly met a fourth defendant, Tiwan Greenwade, and Rainone at a Florin Road Walmart late on the night of Aug. 12, 2016, and drove them to the Kumars’ home before Ashok Kumar arrived, investigators said. Rohini Kumar let them inside. Minutes later, investigators said, Ashok Kumar walked in and was immediately in the fight that ended up killing him.
Greenwade told investigators he might have put Ashok Kumar in a chokehold to try to control him, court documents showed. Kumar’s body was found just inside his doorway, investigators said. Medical examiners said the cause of death was blunt force trauma and asphyxia.
Sharma’s attorney, Michael Wise, in April alleged that former principal criminal attorney Phillips colluded Greenwade, to trade Greenwade’s testimony on the witness stand against his co-defendants for Phillips’ promise to argue for a lighter manslaughter conviction in his closing argument.
Jurors at the murder trial found Greenwade guilty of manslaughter, sparing him of a murder verdict. Rainone, Sharma and Kumar each were convicted of first-degree murder. Greenwade’s co-defendants continue to await sentencing.
Attorneys alleged the deal was done in secret after two of the defendants had already taken the stand and that it wasn’t revealed to defense attorneys until after trial had ended. Emails between Phillips and Greenwade’s then-attorney Danny Brace including a pre-made list of prepared prompts for Greenwade ahead of his testimony at trial only fed Wise’s contention that Phillips committed misdeeds at trial.
Wise on Tuesday said he was pleased with the DA’s concession, but added “the judge still has to make the ultimate decision.”
“It was not an easy decision to make, but I’m glad I did it,” Wise said of levying the misconduct allegations, adding the internal DA’s investigation that followed was “like pulling out the root of the tree,” uncovering other information that Wise said supported his claims.
The DA’s filing also references jailhouse conversations between Greenwade and another inmate and with a girlfriend that suggested Greenwade believed he had a deal in the works.
Wise’s bombshell in the waning months of a fiercely contested and expensive race between Phillips and his boss, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, became one of the defining issues of the campaign. Schubert went on to defeat Phillips by a wide margin to win a second term.
Schubert went on the attack against her rival, hammering home Wise’s allegations of prosecutorial misconduct against Phillips in campaign ads that branded him as “dangerous” and “unethical,” and suggested in the ads and in interviews that the accusations could lead to felony criminal charges.
Phillips, who officials said no longer works for the DA’s office, repeatedly blasted the misconduct allegations as politically motivated and designed to derail his upstart campaign.
In his declaration, attached to the DA’s motion, Phillips again stressed that he argued for a felony murder charge against Greenwade in his summation and that no deal was ever in the works for Greenwade.
“I never made any deal, secret or otherwise, with Mr. Greenwade, or anyone else in this case,” Phillips wrote.
Phillips was on leave from the DA’s office while he ran for Schubert’s seat, but still had the murder case before the allegations arose. He was relieved soon after the allegations surfaced and replaced by Bladet, the senior prosecutor who filed Friday’s motion.
Phillips argued after the June election that DA’s prosecutors should be removed from the case, saying Schubert had a conflict of interest as a campaign rival that extended downstairs to her prosecutors. Fiorini rejected the argument.