Sonora attorney Scott Gross quit his representation of Karl Karlsen on Tuesday at the Calaveras County Superior Court, forcing the postponement of the trial less than one day before jury selection was scheduled to begin.
Gross said he discovered a conflict of interest in his representation of Karlsen, but did not offer additional details in open court. Following the hearing, Gross declined to comment on the reason for the conflict due to a protective order on the trial.
“After extensive consultation with my attorney,” Gross said in a prepared statement to the court, “we declare the conflict to preserve our client’s best interest.”
Karlsen, 56, who is accused of murdering his wife, Christina Karlsen, after starting a fire at his family home in Murphys in 1991 to collect on a $200,000 life insurance policy in her name, shook his head and muttered when Judge Thomas A. Smith granted Gross’ request.
Gross had been Karlsen’s attorney since March 7, 2016, when Karlsen was first arraigned on the murder charge. Gross represented Karlsen throughout the preliminary hearing in July and August 2016, and in dozens of motion hearings and conferences over the past two years.
Karlsen is serving a 28-years-to-life sentence in Seneca County, New York, after he pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder in the death of his son, Levi, and committing insurance fraud to collect on an insurance policy he had submitted just days before Levi’s death. Karlsen admitted he knocked a truck off a lift and it fell on his son in 2008 at their family farm.
Following a 45-minute closed conference between Smith, Gross and Karlsen, Smith said Gross provided “sufficient good cause for granting the motion” and he would vacate the scheduled trial date of Oct. 3 “very reluctantly.”
Smith set a trial setting conference for Oct. 11 at the Calaveras County Superior Court and tentatively assigned Karlsen representation from the Calaveras County Public Defender’s Office.
Gross’ revelation of a conflict of interest was met with almost universal disbelief from court officers and those in attendance.
Smith, Gross, Calaveras County District Attorney Barbara Yook and Deputy District Attorney Jeff Stone met privately in the judge’s chambers for five minutes at the 11:30 a.m. hearing before the announcement was made.
When they returned, Gross explained to the court that he wished to make a “prepared statement,” and all three other parties registered visible surprise when he requested that Karlsen be assigned new counsel.
Karlsen sat beside Gross during the announcement, but did not react to the request. Karlsen, who was cuffed at both his hands and feet, sidled his rolling chair to Gross’ seat while the parties were in the judge’s chambers and appeared to read a document laid out on the desk.
Citing the unexpected nature of the announcement, Smith ordered that his ruling on the request be delayed until the afternoon session so that the District Attorney’s Office can prepare a response.
Christina Karlsen’s parents, who frequently attend the hearings, left the courtroom Tuesday morning in a state of shock. The mother cried as she was led out of the room by Yook and Calaveras County probation officer Mike Whitney, but later said aloud, “One way or another, I’m going to witness a trial. A debt has to be paid.”
Gross claimed in the afternoon that the District Attorney’s Office had “no standing” to speak on his request, due to Karlsen’s protected 6th Amendment rights. The 6th Amendment, among other provisions, provides the right to counsel.
In her inquiry to the court, Yook derided the request as an “orchestrated tactic for unknown purposes” made in the “eleventh hour” and implored the court to make an inquiry into the “general nature” of the conflict of interest.
Yook asked the court to determine when the conflict arose and whether it could have affected previous hearings due to the potential for an appeal motion from new counsel.
“Without knowing when, there is a concern lingering,” she said.
Yook added that if the court did not ascertain the reason behind the conflict, new counsel for Karlsen could also be subject to the same issue.
“We’re obviously very unhappy that this was coming up in the last second,” she said.
Following the 45-minute conference with Gross and Karlsen, Smith said a transcript of the discussion would be sealed.
Yook also suggested that the Calaveras County Public Defender’s Office may decline the appointment to Karlsen at the upcoming hearing.
Gross left the hearing with Dan Quinn, who said he was a court-appointed investigator on behalf of the defense. Quinn was present for the hearing on Tuesday and part of the previous motion hearing on Sept. 26.
During the previous motion hearing, Smith denied six defense motions filed by Gross. The motions included the request to dismiss the trial or recuse the Calaveras County District Attorney’s Office, to suppress statements Karlsen to Seneca County Sheriff’s deputies investigating the death of Levi in November 2013, to suppress statements made by Karlsen to Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office detective Mike Whitney in March 2014 while Karlsen was in prison in New York, to strike Karlsen’s Seneca County murder conviction of his son Levi from the court record, to suppress tape recordings made by two California Department of Forestry firefighters who recorded Karlsen without his knowledge in 1991 and to exclude police and insurance reports, police reports and video recordings stored by a California Department of Forestry employee in his garage for 20 years after the Murphys house fire.
Smith also upheld prosecution motions to allow evidence related to Karlsen’s repeated utility of insurance policies in a 1986 fire of his Dodge Charger, a 2002 barn fire and his son Levi’s murder and for the introduction of domestic violence evidence related to Christina Karlsen six months before her death, and to Karlsen’s daughter Erin DeRoche and Levi within 10 years of Jan. 1, 1991.
At the end of the Sept. 26 hearing, Gross said he expected to file additional motions before the start of the trial, but also assured Karlsen that the trial would begin next week.
When the trial begins, it is expected to last up to 20 days. An amended prosecution’s witness list includes 45 witnesses including Karlsen family members, DeRoche, former Calaveras County coroner Terry Parker, Whitney, and other retired emergency officials.
Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.