Friday, May 21, 2010

Judge could quash Woodlake officers' subpoenas in grand jury inquiry

A Tulare County Superior Court judge will decide whether to quash subpoenas requiring Woodlake's police chief and some of his officers to testify in a grand jury investigation of an accidental shooting.

Judge Lloyd Hicks heard Thursday morning arguments from the lawyer representing Woodlake and city Police Chief John Zapalac and from the assistant district attorney representing the county's civil grand jury. Hicks said he'll issue a ruling in writing.

Woodlake's city attorney filed a motion claiming, among other things, that if the grand jury investigation is not delayed, its findings could affect the June 8 sheriff's election between Zapalac and Sheriff Bill Wittman.

The grand jury is investigating the Jan. 16, 2009, shooting of Leland Perryman while he and his wife, Judy, were walking their dogs in an orchard near their home east of Exeter. An investigation concluded that the .40-caliber bullet that hit Leland Perryman likely came from the Exeter Police Department's shooting range, where a group of Woodlake officers were training.

Woodlake police have not denied that the bullet likely was fired by one of the officers, and the city has reached a $350,000 financial settlement with the Perrymans. But the Perrymans, who attended Thursday's hearing, have criticized Zapalac and his officers and asked the grand jury in January to investigate the shooting.

Among other things, they claim that:

# The Woodlake officers should have known that stray bullets might fly out of the range, and the District Attorney's Office was wrong in determining that they weren't criminally negligent.

# Zapalac, after initially answering questions from Tulare County sheriff's deputies, ordered his officers to stop cooperating.

The Perrymans filed a motion with the court last week seeking to intervene in the case between Woodlake, Zapalac and the grand jury so they could help fight the city's motion to quash the subpoenas. They claimed that delaying the investigation would hobble the grand jury and violate their civil rights.

Hicks on Thursday ruled against the motion, saying the Perrymans exercised their rights by filing a complaint with the grand jury.

Hicks asked Thomas Watson, city counsel for Woodlake, what authority he had to delay a grand jury investigation. Watson said the judge can "make sure the grand jury stays within the authority of law."

Watson has asked that the subpoenas not be enforced until after a civil case involving Woodlake police Officer Michael Clark and the Tulare County Sheriff's Department is settled, or at least until the election. He argued that the court could modify when the subpoenas would be enforced without significantly affecting the grand jury investigation.

Deputy District Attorney Jill Icenhower, representing the grand jury, argued that there's no legal basis to stay the subpoenas. She asked Hicks to set a date next week to have Zapalac and his officers testify before the grand jury.

Icenhower said grand jury findings are confidential until their release. Such a release is unlikely to happen before the election, she said.

"Right now, it's one person trying to intervene with the grand jury for their own private purposes," Icenhower said.

Zapalac did not attend the hearing.

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