A judge Tuesday is expected to set a retrial date for four of six men who were convicted in the 2008 financially motivated killing of a Palm Springs retiree.
The four were granted a retrial last week following a request by two of the men, who argued the judge who presided over their trial nearly eight years ago was biased against them, which allowed two other defendants in the case to secure new trials themselves.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge David B. Downing, now retired, was allegedly recorded admitting he had purposefully declined to read motions from defendant Kaushal Niroula, citing concerns Niroula was HIV-positive.
“Lord knows where his tongue has been,” Downing said, according to court papers reviewed by the Desert Sun, which cited conversations allegedly recorded in secret during jury selection by Niroula’s co-defendant, Daniel Carlos Garcia with his laptop computer.
Garcia, 37, and Niroula, 39, were convicted in September 2012 of murder, conspiracy and other charges stemming from the stabbing death of 74-year-old Clifford Lambert. Both men represented themselves during the trial and were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Lambert was attacked in the kitchen of his Palm Springs home on Dec. 5, 2008, and buried in the desert, according to prosecutors. His body has never been recovered.
The two other defendants in the case who will also be retried — David Replogle, 71, a San Francisco attorney, and Miguel Bustamante, 37 — were convicted in January 2011 of first-degree murder and eight other felony counts stemming from Lambert’s death, and both were also sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The Riverside County District Attorney’s Office said in a prepared statement last week that prosecutors did not contest the defendants’ request for a new trial.
“Following a thorough review of these claims, we made the decision that the interests of justice demanded these two defendants be granted a new trial. To prevent even an appearance of judicial bias and to ensure the rights of the other defendants were protected, we advised we would also not oppose the granting of new trials for the other separately tried defendants,” the statement read.
Two other defendants will not be receiving a new trial. Craig McCarthy, Bustamante’s roommate, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 25 years and four months in prison. San Francisco art dealer Russell Manning pleaded guilty to fraud-related charges in the case and was sentenced to five years in prison.
Deputy District Attorney Lisa DiMaria said during Garcia’s and Niroula’s trial that Garcia met Lambert online the spring before he died, and Lambert paid for Garcia to travel from Northern California to see him. Garcia’s visit didn’t go well and he left earlier than planned, charging Lambert’s credit card when he upgraded his plane ticket to first class, she said.
Text messages from Garcia’s phone showed he had contact information for Replogle, who had represented him at one point and became a friend, and Bustamante, a student and bartender in the Bay Area. McCarthy was also dragged into the conspiracy, DiMaria said.
She said Garcia sent Lambert’s address and phone number to Niroula, and on Dec. 1, Replogle and Niroula flew to Burbank and drove to Palm Springs. The next day, Niroula posed as an attorney representing a wealthy New York family that had purportedly left Lambert money or valuable artwork in a will, the prosecutor said.
On Dec. 5, Niroula was at Lambert’s home, and at some point he let McCarthy and Bustamante into the house, the prosecutor said. McCarthy grabbed Lambert and held him at knifepoint in the kitchen, and Bustamante stabbed Lambert to death, DiMaria told jurors.
She said Niroula brought bedding into the kitchen so they could wrap up the body, while Bustamante and McCarthy cleaned up the blood.
They put Lambert’s body into the trunk of his own Mercedes-Benz, and Bustamante and McCarthy buried Lambert in the desert the next day, according to the prosecutor. They drove the car to the Bay Area, and Garcia started using Lambert’s debit card to withdraw money the same day, she said.
On Dec. 10, Niroula opened a Wells Fargo account with Replogle’s information, according to DiMaria. The next day, Replogle, posing as Lambert, gave Manning power of attorney over Lambert’s accounts, and Manning — accompanied by Niroula — wired $185,000 from Lambert’s Palm Springs bank account to the newly opened Wells Fargo account, according to the prosecution.
On Dec. 12, Replogle — again posing as Lambert and accompanied by Niroula — met with a notary and forged four power-of-attorney documents, including a durable power of attorney that gave Manning power of attorney over Lambert’s entire estate, DiMaria said. The same day, Niroula transferred $30,000 into Bustamante’s account and Manning wrote a check to Replogle for more than $15,000, closing out Lambert’s account, she said.
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