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Karlsen given trial date; motion decision postponed


Karl Karlsen was issued a trial date of Feb. 20, and a Calaveras County Superior Court judge delayed a ruling until after the trial is held on defense motion to dismiss the charges for violation of due process.

Karl Karlsen, 56, has been accused of setting a fire at his Murphys home in 1991 that killed his wife, Christina Karlsen, and collecting $200,000 in life insurance.

Following the 30 minute hearing on the dismissal motion, Judge Thomas A. Smith called a brief recess to confer with a clerk on the court’s upcoming schedule, and Karlsen leaned in to speak to defense attorney David Wellenbrock, hired by defense attorney Scott Gross for the due process motion.

Through his muted but aggravated whispers, Karlsen said, “what the prosecutor said,” and “do you call this justice?”

While speaking to Wellenbrock, Karlsen also mentioned his son, Levi, who died after being pinned under a truck at the Karlsen family’s Seneca County, New York, farm in 2008.

Karlsen received a sentence of 28 years to life in Seneca County after pleading guilty to two counts of second degree murder, and committing insurance fraud in order to collect on an insurance policy he had submitted just days before Levi’s death.

During his counter-argument on the due process dismissal motion, Deputy District Attorney Jeff Stone said the defense overlooked that new evidence in the Christina Karlsen murder case was arose during the 2012 prosecution of Karl Karlsen for the murder of his son.

As Stone uttered the words “Karlsen children,” Karl Karlsen leered over his shoulder at Stone, silent, but at times blinking rapidly.

Throughout the arguments, Smith sat stone-faced, making slight swivels in his chair.

Wellenbrock made several arguments that the 20 years between the alleged murder and the prosecution of Karlsen had prompted a “laundry list” of now “lost witnesses” and the destruction of crucial evidence from files and at the Murphys home fire scene.

“We can’t investigate anything to refute the report,” he said, indicating to fire investigation reports that determined the blaze may have been the result of arson, or an electrical issue. “It seems clear that Mr. Karlsen has suffered prejudice and there is no justification for the delay.”

The “lost avenues of investigation” had inherently prejudiced Karlsen, he added, because the defense had no recourse to develop their own investigation into the cause of the fire, or receive witness statements that could corroborate Karlsen’s innocence.

Wellenbrock additionally stipulated that Karlsen’s 6th amendment rights had been violated since he could not adequately obtain witnesses to speak in his defense.

During Wellenbrock’s argument, Karlsen shuffled loudly through a stack of papers and turned to individual pages with his manacled hands.

Additionally, Wellenbrock added, medical records proving that Karlsen had been burned as a result of the fire had also been destroyed in the “routine course of business.”

Wellonbrock alluded to the investigation into Christina’s death as a “fairy convoluted procedural history,” as was stated in the due process dismissal motion.

The investigation had been deferred from the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office, to a Deputy County Fire Warden, and then to the California Department of Forestry, Wellenbrock said. The fact that State Farm Insurance paid out the insurance claim, he added, was additional proof to the claim that the fire was accidental.

Wellenbrock said that much of the evidence that could have supported the defense had been lost or destroyed between the initial investigation in 1991 and its restart in 2012.

“We’ve got a considerable amount of prejudice,” he said.

Stone urged Smith to deny the due process dismissal motion, indicating that a fair trial could be determined once all the evidence was made available to the court.

“We are talking about a murder case,” he said, adding that a California law dictates there is no statute of limitations on murder cases. Stone acknowledged that the Levi Karlsen murder trial had been the impetus for opening prosecution against Karl Karlsen, and connected the “motive” of collecting on insurance claims after a murder in both cases.

“This has now crossed that threshold where we can say we can prove this beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.

Stone also referred to the defense’s “laundry list” of witnesses as “a fishing expedition, a wish list.”

“They haven’t actually demonstrated what actual prejudice they have been subjected to,” he said.

Stone also said there was a recorded statement of Karlsen admitting to boarding up the window, a claim the defense denied, and preserved video footage of the fire scene in 1991.

Stone said State Farm settling an insurance claim was not a definitive determination that they had ruled the fire to be an accident.

Smith said the Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office did not delay prosecution of Karlsen with the intent of prejudicing him.

The loss of evidence, he added, would be “just as prejudiced to the People’s case as to the defense’s case.”

As Karlsen shook his head slightly, Smith said he would temporarily delay a decision on the motion until after the conclusion of the jury trial.

“If there is a guilty verdict, I will entertain the motion again,” he said.

Gross, who was silent for most of the discussion on the motion, said the trial would likely last about 20 days.

After some deliberation on the scheduling of the trial, all parties agreed that the trial would be held four days a week, with at least one day off for the jurors.

Jury selection was slated for between Feb. 14 and 16 at 8:30 a.m. in Courtroom 3, with the trial beginning the following Monday.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Karlsen continued to speak to Wellenbrock until a nearby bailiff admonished him and indicated for him to rise to his feet.

Karlsen took just a few steps before he stopped and stamped the ground twice with his foot. A stack of files in his hands, he disappeared moments later behind the double-doors and back into jail holding.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.