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‘It’s the perception that matters.’ Judge grants new trial in ‘secret deal’ murder case

DA candidate Noah Phillips: “The way we’ve been doing our business has resulted in a lot of problems”

District Attorney candidate Noah Phillips speaks at the League of Women Voters candidates forum in Sacramento.
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District Attorney candidate Noah Phillips speaks at the League of Women Voters candidates forum in Sacramento.

A Sacramento judge on Friday granted a new trial for the defendants in a 2016 murder trial beset by allegations of a secret deal engineered by former county prosecutor and district attorney candidate Noah Phillips.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Curtis Fiorini stopped short of sanctioning Phillips or dismissing charges, but upbraided him in a lengthy opinion from the bench. Phillips, he said, turned defendant Tiwan Greenwade into a witness for the prosecution with a deal to trade testimony for a promise to argue for a lighter sentence before the jury, then withheld the arrangement from defense attorneys.

“He thinks he’s getting a deal. That’s his belief,” Fiorini said of Greenwade. “Whether Mr. Phillips intended enticement, it doesn’t matter. It’s the perception that matters. Mr. Greenwade harbored a belief that he would get a benefit if he testified at trial.”

Fiorini’s Friday decision was all but assured after Sacramento County DA’s officials said they would not fight defense attorneys’ motions for a new trial for Greenwade’s co-defendants Vicky Rainone, Ragua Sharma and Rohini Kumar.

The three return Aug. 14 to Sacramento Superior Court for a judge to set the new trial date and determine whether bail for the trio will be set. Rainone, Sharma and Kumar remain held without bail in Sacramento County custody. Greenwade will return to court two weeks later on Aug. 31

Jurors decided it was Greenwade who killed Ashok Kumar, 60, with a chokehold. He was hired muscle for a break-in of Kumar’s home on Grandstaff Drive in south Sacramento late on Aug. 12, 2016, that prosecutors say was set up by wife Rohini Kumar as revenge for Ashok’s extramarital affair. Ashok Kumar walked in on the home invasion and engaged in the fight with Greenwade that killed him.

Rohini Kumar initially told investigators the couple were the victims of a home invasion before she, Rainone and Sharma were arrested and later convicted of first-degree murder in her husband’s death. But jurors returned a voluntary manslaughter verdict for Greenwade at trial.

Dawn Bladet, the supervising deputy prosecutor who took over the case from Phillips, called the case “isolated” and defended her office’s actions in investigating the allegations against one of their own and agreeing to retry the case.

“There is no evidence that this is anything but abhorrent behavior — an isolated incident,” Bladet said. “We took control of the case and corrected the error.”

Fiorini may have spared Phillips from further penalty, but the former principal criminal attorney came under withering fire from defense attorneys.

Rainone attorney Jon Lippsmeyer said the case points to deeper, more systemic troubles within the District Attorney’s Office, vowing a retrial of his client would also put the county prosecutors’ office on trial for alleged misconduct past and present.

“They’ve had a problem there for years,” Lippsmeyer said of the DA’s office. “The court serves as the last check and balance. This is not the time for the courts not to be assertive. Do you want to take a case where the DA is going to be on trial?”

Phillips sat, hands clasped, in a rear row of the courtroom next to his attorney, Steven Lewis. Phillips has denied defense allegations of a secret deal and his former office’s allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.

But defense attorneys for Rainone, Sharma and Rohini Kumar said they were kept in the dark about emails from Phillips to Greenwade’s then-attorney Danny Brace that included a list of talking points for Greenwade ahead of his testimony — a list, Fiorini said, that shaped Greenwade’s testimony by giving him a script to follow on the stand.

Meantime, Fiorini called recorded jailhouse conversations between Greenwade and a girlfriend and with inmates in Sacramento County lockup “very troubling,” saying they showed that Greenwade thought he had a deal with prosecutors to escape a murder conviction, Fiorini said.

The findings, Fiorini said, “support the inference that there is a deal.”

Phillips “gravely failed,” said Sharma attorney Michael Wise, adding the “entire trial resulted in a sham.”

Wise said Phillips should repay Sharma and Kumar’s legal fees. Neither, Wise said, have the money to rehire counsel for a new trial.

“I have a lot of anger because in so many ways, he failed,” Mark Axup, Rohini Kumar’s attorney, said at the morning hearing of Phillips’ alleged conduct in calling for charges to be dismissed.

“He lied to this court. He lied to all of us. He brought other people into this lie. He manipulated the jury and he misled us.” Axup said Phillips was motivated to negotiate the deal in part to gain support from African American voters in a hotly contested race for district attorney against incumbent DA Anne Marie Schubert. Greenwade is African American.

Phillips staked out racial and social justice, as well as criminal justice reform and accountability in the wake of the fatal police shootings of Joseph Mann and Stephon Clark as key planks of his campaign for DA, criticizing Schubert for her perceived foot-dragging in both cases.

Schubert won re-election in June by a wide margin. Phillips is now working for a local law firm.