Murder in the Eyes of the Beholders
Attorneys battle over the safety and reliability of Cadillac Hotel shooting witnesses
By Gary Walker
The defense attorney for the accused triggerman in the Aug. 30 Cadillac Hotel shooting wants to investigate the mental fitness of witnesses against his client — many of them homeless— but prosecutors fear disclosing the personal information of witnesses will put them at risk of violence and intimidation.
Francisco Guzman, who prosecutors say is a member of the Venice 13 street gang, has been charged with murder for the death of 26-year-old street musician Jascent Jamal Warner during an altercation with a group of homeless people outside the boardwalk-adjacent hotel that also involved hotel owner Sris Sinnathamby. Sinnathamby has been accused of ordering the shooting and is also charged with murder.
During a pretrial hearing on Nov. 6 in Westchester, Guzman’s attorney asked L.A. Superior Court Judge Lauren Weis Birnstein to compel county prosecutors to provide the names, addresses, telephone numbers and social security numbers of shooting witnesses whom prosecutors plan to call against Guzman.
Attorney Garrett Zelan argued that some may have mental difficulties and reliability issues that could become germane during cross examination at trial.
L.A. County Deputy District Attorney John McKinley countered that Zelan’s motion was based on “speculative concerns” and told the judge he has not provided witness contact information in order to protect the witnesses from Guzman and his associates.
“We’re withholding it because of [Guzman’s] gang history, other potential crimes that he might have committed on the boardwalk and his knowledge of the beach,” McKinney said.
Weis Birnstein denied Zelan’s motion, saying much of the information that the attorney was seeking could be easily found without an order.
Zelan said he has not been able to make contact with any of the witnesses so far and complained that Weis Birnstein’s decision put him at a significant disadvantage versus the prosecution.
“It appears that my hands are being tied behind my back. It doesn’t seem like a fair fight to me,” Zelan said.
Attorney Alan Jackson, a former county prosecutor who is representing Sinnathamby, said he had conducted a few interviews with some of the prosecution’s possible witnesses.
Some of those witnesses appeared to have “cognitive issues,” Jackson said, but he did not provide further details.
As The Argonaut reported on Oct. 15, three homeless men who were present during the shooting were convicted of assault with a deadly weapon following a violent confrontation in September near Warren’s makeshift boardwalk memorial.
One of those men said the altercation happened after the victim began destroying Warren’s memorial, spit at the men and threatened them by saying “You guys are next.”
During an Oct. 14 pretrial hearing for Guzman and Sinnathamby, Zelen unsuccessfully sought to bar police and prosecutors from distributing security camera footage of the shooting. Jackson said the video will exonerate Sinnathamby. The Argonaut has made requests to view the footage.
Although she denied Zelan’s motion, Weis Birnstein did say that the defense is entitled to some information about the mental health histories of witnesses.
Weis Birnstein said police should not delve too deeply into witnesses’ backgrounds but must notify the defense if their witnesses had been in lockdown facilities for mental health reasons — “anything that might affect their ability to perceive what they might have seen,” she said.
McKinney unsuccessfully challenged that order, saying it would be an “extraordinary invasion of privacy” for prosecutors to grill witnesses about their mental health status.
“Our duty is to disclose only what we know,” he told the judge.
Outside of the courtroom, McKinney reiterated his reasons for contesting Zelan’s motion based on Guzman’s gang affiliation and the violent history of the Venice 13 gang.
“It was for safety of our witnesses and to prevent witness intimidation,” he said.
Sinnathamby is free on $1-million bond and Guzman has remained in custody since his Oct. 5 arrest.
The next preliminary hearing is set for Dec. 16.