Attorneys for hotel owner and alleged gunman appear to be taking their defense in different directions
By Gary Walker
During a Dec. 16 discovery hearing in the Cadillac Hotel shooting case, courtroom battles over a DNA sample, police investigation records and how quickly trial should begin continued to suggest that attorneys for the two men facing murder charges may have very different defense strategies.
Francisco Guzmàn, who prosecutors say is a member of the Venice 13 street gang, is accused of firing the shots that killed street musician Jascent Jamal Warren and wounded another man during an Aug. 30 confrontation outside the Venice boardwalk hotel.
Witnesses have told police that Warren, 26, was trying to intervene in a dispute between a group of homeless men and hotel owner Sris Sinnathamby, 54, who is accused of ordering the shooting.
Guzmàn, 28, is being held in lieu of $3 million bail. Sinnathamby is free on a $1 million bond.
While Sinnathamby’s attorney has said he’d like to proceed to trial quickly to clear his client’s name, Guzmàn’s has battled with the judge seeking additional information about prosecution witnesses and the police investigation.
Last week at the Airport Courthouse in Westchester, L.A. Superior Court Judge Lauren Weis-Birnstein scheduled a preliminary hearing, which paves the way for trial, to begin on Jan. 15.
The discovery hearing focused in part on a black hooded sweatshirt found in what prosecutors believe was Guzmàn’s getaway vehicle, which would make the hoodie physical evidence linking Guzmàn to the crime scene.
Deputy District Attorney John McKinney said a witness who came to the Cadillac Hotel with Sinnathamby and a group of friends on the night of the murder inadvertently took the hoodie from the SUV and later turned it over to investigators because it did not belong to anyone in Sinnathamby’s group.
“Therefore it must’ve been in the vehicle prior to them getting a ride from Mr. Guzmàn. It is our belief that Mr. Guzmàn was the shooter and the sweatshirt was taken from his vehicle,” McKinney said.
The hoodie came up when McKinney asked Weis-Birnstein for the right to take a saliva sample from Guzmàn for DNA testing.
Garrett Zelan, Guzmàn’s attorney, objected to a second DNA sample because police had already taken one after Guzmàn was arrested.
Weis-Birnstein denied McKinney’s request, ordering the prosecution to work with the existing sample, but she left the door open for taking another one if that doesn’t work.
Zelan, who has previously sought to obtain mental health records of prosecution witnesses and keep security camera footage of the shooting from going public, also introduced motions asking for information about all law enforcement personnel involved in the investigation, surveillance and arrest of Guzmàn.
Zelan indicated that the preliminary hearing could take several days because he was uncertain which witnesses the prosecution would call and how the court would rule on his various motions.
Because McKinney is starting an unrelated trial on Jan. 20 that could take six weeks or more, the Cadillac Hotel shooting trial might not begin until mid-March or later.
Sinnathamby’s attorney Alan Jackson, a former L.A. County prosecutor who so far has not joined in any of the motions filed by Zelan, told Weis-Birnstein that a prolonged preliminary hearing would unduly harm his client.
“I don’t want it to go on ad nauseam. It doesn’t serve my client’s interests. The reality is there is an incredible amount of pressure — emotional, societal and political — on him,” Jackson argued.
During the discovery hearing, Jackson successfully petitioned the court for the removal of a GPS ankle monitor that Sinnathamby had been ordered to wear.
Neither Jackson nor Zelan has said whether they will present a joint defense or seek separate trials.
“We’ll have a better understanding of where we stand by the preliminary hearing,” Jackson said outside of court.
McKinney objected to having separate trials because he said the law favors joint proceedings.
“I also objected because severance would put an undue burden on the court, the prosecution and all of the witnesses who would have to then do two rather than one hearing,” McKinney said.