The family of Christina Karlsen was devastated when they learned that the murder trial of her second husband, Karl Karlsen, would be postponed yet again.
But the appointment on Thursday morning of Calaveras County Public Defenders Leigh Fleming and Tony Salazar to represent Karl Karlsen gave Christina Karlsen’s sister, Colette Bousson, some optimism that a trial — and justice — were inevitable.
“At the end of the day, it's not about Karl. It’s about my sister and that’s the focus,” Bousson, 55, said.
A new trial date will not be set for at least another month, but Bousson said whenever it happens, she will be there.
“It's a setback, it’s not the end. It was a temporary setback, but its not going to wipe us out to the point that we’re not ready to go again.”
Karlsen, 56, is accused of murdering his wife, Christina Karlsen, after starting a fire at their home in Murphys in 1991 to collect a $200,000 life insurance policy in her name.
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 Levi and committing insurance fraud to collect on an insurance policy he had submitted just days before Levi’s death.
Karlsen was muted in his response to the appointment on Thursday at the Calaveras County Superior Court. Following the 10-minute hearing, he leaned toward Fleming and made a few comments in a soft voice.
“That’s O.K.,” Fleming responded to Karlsen.
Karlsen’s attorney, Scott Gross, declared a conflict of interest in his representation on Oct. 2, one day before before jury selection was scheduled to begin in the trial. Gross was Karlsen’s attorney since March 7, 2016, from when Karlsen was first arraigned on the murder charge in Calaveras County and as it languished through the system for over two and a half years.
Gross said when he discovered the conflict, he conferred with his attorney and decided to quit. Following the hearing on Oct. 2, Gross declined to comment on the reason for the conflict due to a protective order on the trial.
Gross’ announcement came as a visible surprise or all the those present in the courtroom on Oct. 2, including Calaveras County District Attorney Barbara Yook, Deputy District Attorney Jeff Stone, Judge Thomas A. Smith, and Bousson’s parents.
“You go through a series of emotions. You’re heavy hearted. You’re days away from driving in and angry at Scott Gross because I think what he did was so unethical,” Bousson said.
Bousson, now a resident of Las Vegas, was prepared to drive back to her childhood home of Calaveras County for the trial before she was notified of the postponement. Bousson is listed as one of 45 prosecution witnesses.
She didn’t feel any fear at the prospect of seeing Karlsen in the courtroom, she said.
Karlsen “laughed at her” during the Seneca County court proceedings related to the death of his son, Levi.
Bousson testified at Karlsen’s preliminary hearing in Calaveras County, too, she added, and spoke over his “fussing and noises.”
“My anticipation is that the trial is going to happen,” she said. “The DA and the investigators have done a lot of work and invested a lot of time so I don't see any reason why they wouldn't go to trial.”
But the postponement may have inhibited Cindy Best, Karlsen’s second wife from Seneca Falls, from attending the trial as she planned.
“I was going to be there Monday,” she said. “But I’m not sure if it's going to work out for me to attend the new date. A lot of that is going to depend on when it is and what's going on in my life at the time.”
Best is not identified as a prosecution witness, but was integral to the investigation into Karlsen when he was charged in the death of his son. While the couple was seperated, Best made secret recordings of Karlsen where he implicated himself in his son’s death.
Like Bousson, Best described her first reactions to Gross’ unexpected conflict of interest as angry and confused. But also like Bousson, Best reinforced her belief that no matter how many postponements were made, Karlsen would be held accountable.
“Enough is enough. It’s been two and half years. Christa deserves justice,” she said.
On Thursday morning after Salazar and Fleming accepted the appointment, Yook also related her “ongoing concern with the very last minute” conflict that Gross disclosed to Smith. Yook, who said she did not know the reason for the conflict, requested presiding Judge David Sanders that the court monitor the representation of Karlsen to avoid another conflict.
The declaration of conflict of interest Gross made to Smith on Oct. 2 was sealed and deemed confidential.
“As far as everything that is known, there is no conflict,” Salazar said, which Fleming also confirmed.
Bousson said her and her family was wary of any additional conflicts of interest that could cause further delays.
“My concern would be preventing anything Scott Gross did from ever happening again,” she said. “What he did to my family and specifically my parents is unacceptable and I don’t want to see them be as devastated as they were.”
Gross could not be reached for comment.
A trial setting conference was scheduled for Nov. 15 at 10:30 a.m. at the Calaveras County Superior Court. Salazar said he hoped to set an appropriate trial date where the lawyers could avoid a chance of a continuance.
Salazar and Fleming added that their office had investigated whether they were ineligible for the appointment because the Karlsen matter was a “life without parole” case, but they could not find any immediate conflict.
Both Salazar and Fleming revealed an unfamiliarity with the facts of the case and requested the discovery of documents and transcripts related to Karlsen’s preliminary hearing in July and August 2016.
Yook requested that Salazar and Fleming receive the preliminary hearing transcript from Gross and noted exhibits were still logged with the court. Other discovery would be transferred to them on an external hard drive, Yook said.
“That’s ideal actually,” Fleming said.
Yook also requested that the defense pursue additional information related to a mental health examination of Karlsen that Gross alluded to in the past year.
Yook said she received a one-page report and the curriculum vitae of the evaluator but suggested other documentation might be available.