Opmanis Headed To Trial On Shooting Death Case Marred By Video Alteration

Judge Charles Umeda yesterday ruled that Alex Opmanis will face a jury of his peers on charges he murdered Sammy Davis in a confrontation in the parking lot of Goodwin’s Market in Crestline last July.
Yesterday, February 20, was the fourth day of the now-28-year-old Opmanis’s  preliminary hearing, a legal proceeding which had been spread out over a three-week duration, and which resumed and concluded six days after the third and last day of testimony and presentation of evidence on February 14.
The then-27-year-old Opmanis shot and killed Davis, 29, a motorcyclist who was in the company of two other bikers, Shane Codman, then 29, and Robert Shuey, also 29, when the incident occurred. Opmanis did not previously know Davis. He did, however, have a previous relationship with both Codman and Shuey, which included a previous incident during which Shuey had beaten Opmanis severely, resulting in Opmanis having to be hospitalized, undergoing facial surgery, and losing a portion of his vision in his left eye. Evidence and testimony presented previously in the preliminary hearing indicated Davis had initiated an assault on Opmanis in the seconds prior to Opmanis fatally wounding him. Both Davis and Shuey had extensive criminal records. Initially, the agency that investigated the shooting, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, which had access to a full unedited and unaltered video of the shooting, made a determination that Opmanis had acted in self-defense. It was not until one month after the shooting that Opmanis was arrested and then charged with murder in the killing.
Because Opmanis’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender David Striker, was previously engaged in a trial on another matter, Opmanis’s preliminary hearing had proceeded in fits and starts over the course of three weeks. On Friday, January 31 the proceedings had gotten under way with the testimony of detectives Gerardo Moreno and Kevin McCurdy, as well as Deputy Victor Ruiz. On February 7, Detective Michael Cleary of the sheriff’s department’s homicide division testified, followed by Detective Eric Ogaz, who led the investigation into the shooting under the supervision of Sergeant Angelo Gibilterra and Sergeant Joseph Steers after the initial examination of the matter by Detective McCurdy had concluded the day after the shooting with a finding that there were plausible grounds to demonstrate Opmanis had acted in self-defense. Ogaz interviewed Codman on July 25 and Shuey on July 29, both in the presence of their attorneys. Thereafter, largely on the strength of Codman’s and Shuey’s statements, the sheriff’s department had obtained an arrest warrant for Opmanis on August 9, but did not arrest him immediately. Rather, Ogaz invited Opmanis to a follow-up interview on August 13, and after questioning him, arrested him at the conclusion of the interview. Ogaz testified about his investigation and his interviews of the witnesses and Opmanis. Because Striker’s cross examination of Ogaz had not concluded on February 7, Ogaz again testified when the preliminary hearing resumed on February 14.
Over the last week, Judge Umeda had reviewed that testimony and had viewed a  version of the video of the shooting provided to him by the district attorney’s office. That video had originated as one recorded as part of the security system at Goodwin’s Market, located at 24089 Lake Gregory Drive in Crestline. The security system employed several video cameras, including at least two externally mounted ones aimed at the store’s parking lot where the shooting took place at 9:14 pm on Thursday July 11, 2019. One of those video cameras was positioned virtually straight in front of where Opmanis’s Mercedes Benz SUV was parked. The shooting took place just next to the driver’s side of the Mercedes Benz as Opmanis and Davis were involved in a physical confrontation.
While Judge Umeda indicated he had viewed the moving images of the video, he did not say he had listened to its audio contents beyond the loud report of the gunshot that had felled Davis, and from the judge’s remarks in court yesterday, indications were he had not considered the video’s sound element, which contains substance directly related to the testimony provided during, and the gravamen of, the hearing. The utterances of Opmanis and Davis, which are audible on the video tape, are relevant, as well, to several of the issues dealt with in the judge’s ruling. The video was altered from its original form either by the someone in the sheriff’s department or within the district attorney’s office, and was presented in fragmented form to the defense, with several of the fragments missing, including a crucial 12 to 13 second gap that starts roughly 15 seconds before the shooting takes place, such that the passage showing the shooting starts just two seconds or so before a shot from Opmanis’s gun can be heard.
Upon the resumption of the proceedings yesterday, all testimony and the presentation of evidence having been concluded last Friday, Judge Umeda was awaiting concluding arguments from Deputy District Attorney David Starr Rabb and Striker before making his determination.
Rabb, tersely, asked Umeda, based upon the evidence and testimony presented during the preliminary hearing, to hold Opmanis to answer on all the counts he has been charged with, which include PC 187, murder; PC 12022.53(B), unlawful use of a firearm; PC 12022.53(C), unlawful discharge of a firearm; and PC 12022.53(D), unlawful discharge of a firearm causing death.
Striker asked that all of the exhibits used during the preliminary hearing be moved into evidence, a request Judge Umeda granted. Thereafter, Striker was more expansive in his remarks to the court than had been Rabb.
Striker said he was asking the court to dismiss the case on the grounds that Opmanis’s action had been taken in lawful self-defense. The defense attorney said that statements made by prosecution witnesses elicited both by himself on cross examination and by Rabb on direct examination had “articulated a lawful self defense shooting of Mr. Davis.” The testimony of the detectives who had investigated the matter, Striker said, established that Opmanis had “no idea” that Shuey, Davis and Codman would be at Goodwin’s Market that evening, thus eliminating any possibility that Opmanis had plotted the shooting with malice aforethought. The video demonstrated that Opmanis was at the store for the legitimate purpose of shopping in so far that it shows the defendant putting the groceries he had purchased into his car. The video shows, Striker said, the motorcycles driving through the parking lot, and after they have initiated leaving the parking lot and then returned, Davis dismounting from his motorcycle, taking off his helmet, jacket and backpack and walking toward Opmanis. The video further demonstrates that Shuey, Davis and Codman were surrounding the defendant on public property, Striker asserted, and he said the evidence demonstrated that Shuey had previously assaulted his client. The prosecution had not disputed those facts, Striker said, nor had it controverted that Opmanis had suffered a serious beating at the hands of Davis’s companion, Shuey, some six months prior to the fatal confrontation in July. All of that information had come from the deputies investigating the case, Striker said. Furthermore, it was established that Opmanis had suffered serious head injuries, and that just prior to the shooting he was surrounded by Shuey, Codman and Davis, three motorcyclists, two of whom – Davis and Shuey – had dismounted and were near him. The video showed, Striker said, that Davis had approached Opmanis aggressively in what Codman had called a “power walk.” The evidence and testimony was that Opmanis had no previous animus toward Davis, did not know him, did not threaten him, did not level a gun toward him and did not engage in fighting words with Davis prior to the shooting, Striker propounded. The missing 13 seconds of the video omitted the action which occurred just prior to the shooting, but what is visible before the video gap, Striker said, showing what looks to be the initiation of a physical struggle toward the back of Opmanis’s vehicle, taken together with what is visible after the video resumes nearly 13 seconds later with Opmanis and Davis having moved to the driver’s side door, is “consistent” with Opmanis’s statements to detectives that he was being administered a “beating” by Davis and that he had reached into his car to retrieve his gun at that point. The video shows Opmanis “shooting from the driver’s side of the vehicle,” Striker said, which further matched Opmanis’s statements to the investigating detectives.
Striker reminded Judge Umeda that he had rightfully discounted suggestions by the prosecution and had not allowed into evidence Detective Ogaz’s speculation based upon Shuey and Codman’s statements that Opmanis had a gun hidden in his sweatshirt, which shored up Opmanis’s version of events that held he had shot from the driver’s side of the car after he managed to obtain his gun from inside it, and only after he was being viciously assaulted by Davis.
The sole contradiction of Opmanis’s claim to being assaulted consists of Codman’s statement to that effect, Striker said, but he noted that Codman and Davis were “childhood friends.” Striker said that Shuey was more equivocal as to whether Davis was assaulting Opmanis in that he told investigators that upon his having circled back into the parking, Codman and Davis were in a confrontation or verbal altercation with Opmanis, and Shuey “was not sure” Opmanis had been hit by Davis.
Striker emphasized that Shuey said he did not see Opmanis with a gun. The defense attorney suggested that Shuey and Codman fleeing the scene to avoid law enforcement officers summoned by Opmanis in the aftermath of the shooting, and their not showing up for their interviews with the sheriff’s department investigators until more than two weeks after the incident, and then doing so in the company of lawyers, was significant when contrasted with Opmanis having remained at the scene of the shooting and fully cooperating with authorities. When asked by Ogaz to explain why he had fled the scene, Codman had declined to do so upon the advice of his attorney, Striker pointed out, and he said Codman and Shuey contradicted each other as to whether there was an altercation. While Codman downplayed the suggestion of any fight or struggle between Opmanis and Davis, Striker said Shuey told investigators he saw and heard a heated exchange between Davis and Opmanis.
Opmanis’s honking of his horn, which the prosecution had suggested during the preliminary hearing was intended to inveigle Shuey and his cohorts into a confrontation so that Opmanis could exact revenge upon Shuey for the previous assault Shuey had inflicted on him, was inconsequential, Striker asserted, in that both Shuey and Codman had claimed they had not heard the horn blares and they had not drawn their attention to Opmanis.
Striker took issue with the prosecution’s suggestion through the selective presentation of evidence and the statements of Shuey and Codman that the three motorcyclists were not aware of Opmanis’s presence in the parking lot before they circled back to come up to Opmanis’s vehicle, at which point they recognized him. Such a contention was suspect, Striker said, and contradicted by what is depicted on the video, which shows Opmanis and Shuey engaging in a set of vulgar hand gesture exchanges, i.e., flipping each other off, as Shuey is riding out of the parking lot. Striker said Shuey and Codman’s statements that they had not seen Opmanis in the parking lot prior to their having mounted their bikes to leave was dubious, given that they knew Opmanis and were familiar with the vehicle he drove and that the video shows them passing within twenty to thirty feet in front of where Opmanis was parked in front of the market as they emerged therefrom and were walking toward their motorcycles.
“My first request is to have this case dismissed and a finding that Mr. Opmanis acted in self defense,” Striker said to Judge Umeda. He said that Codman, Shuey and Opmanis all said that Davis was coming toward Opmanis in an aggressive manner prior to the shooting, and that interpreting all of the known facts in the case in as negative of a light toward Opmanis as is reasonable, the best case the prosecution could present in any event “would amount to voluntary manslaughter and not murder.”
Striker said, “The fact that there is no assault on the video means absolutely nothing because that assault occurred in the missing 13 seconds.”
Striker reiterated that the case against Opmanis at most added up to manslaughter, based upon what could be interpreted as a matter of “imperfect self-defense,” and he asserted that the case, as it is presently charged, should be dismissed.
Rabb, who continued to be terse and measured in his response, said that “the People have shown enough probable cause” to justify the charges. Rabb noted Codman and Shuey attempted to speak with deputies the day after the shooting. Rabb brought up Opmanis’s honking of his horn, and he said Shuey, Codman and Davis were leaving the parking lot and were drawn back to the parking lot by Opmanis drawing their attention to him. Opmanis, Rabb said, “made no effort to leave” and “called these individuals over to the location” where the shooting took place. Rabb said that Striker’s concession that a case for an “imperfect self-defense” meant that the degree of Opmanis’s guilt “is an issue for a jury to decide.”
Rabb did make a notable misstatement to the court, evincing a less than comprehensive command of the facts that make up the case, when, in seeking to deflect Striker’s assertion that Codman’s and Shuey’s claim that they had not noticed Opmanis in the parking lot prior to their having started to ride away was not credible, Rabb conflated Codman with Shuey. The prosecutor asserted that Codman had undergone LASIK surgery to improve his vision some time shortly after the incident. In fact, it was Shuey who underwent the LASIK procedure.
Rabb asked Judge Umeda to hold the defendant to answer at trial.
Striker responded to say that his client had honked his horn to get people’s attention because he wanted to bring all eyes to himself in case he was assaulted by the trio.
Striker told Judge Umeda that if his client were to be held over for trial, it should be on the basis of a voluntary manslaughter charge, which was the only plausible guilt scenario the prosecution could reasonably present.
Rabb said the court should hold Opmanis over for trial as he is currently charged, and that a jury should decide the issues and his fate.
Judge Umeda said, “The court did review the video numerous times to see what occurred before the shooting. It is clear from the video that Mr. Codman, Mr. Shuey and Mr. Davis are leaving the parking lot. I looked  carefully to see what gestures were being made. When you look at Mr. Opmanis, clearly he is on the guard rail [of his Mercedes Benz SUV, elevating and putting himself in better view of the motorcyclists as they are riding out of the parking lot].”
Judge Umeda said he could see Opmanis gesturing at Shuey as he rode by, somewhat squeamishly departing from his posture of judicial decorum in referencing “using the term ‘flipping him off,’” to convey Opmanis’s action. At the same time, the judge said, he could not make out what the defense and others who have viewed the video believe provoked Opmanis’s disrespectful gesticulation, that is, Shuey having first flipped Opmanis off.
“I do not see any hand motion by Mr. Shuey,” Judge Umeda said. “I looked to see if he made a hand gesture. I did not see that on the video.”
Judge Umeda continued, delineating in some depth how Opmanis’s waving of his arm, his honking of his horn, his having flipped Shuey off and the general drawing of attention to himself which ultimately resulted in the three bikers coming back into the parking lot rather than leaving and thereby leading to the confrontation that resulted in the shooting figured into the court’s ultimate conclusion. “As that motorcycle is going past the vehicle, you can hear the horn honked,” Umeda said. While the judge said Opmanis’s reason for honking the horn is in dispute, with the defense providing a benign interpretation and the prosecution a more sinister one, in combination with other elements of what occurred, a killing resulted, the judge reasoned. “Why [he was honking the horn], when did he take the gun out of the lock box, when did he grab the firearm – the video doesn’t show that,” Umeda said. Umeda then alluded to what was perhaps the most fateful link in the chain of events that led to the fatal outcome: “Mr. Codman circled back behind the back of the defendant’s vehicle,” Umeda said, the implication being that Opmanis’s action had summoned the three motorcyclists to come back to the parking lot after they were set upon leaving. It was Codman’s return to the parking lot to drive up to Opmanis and his vehicle that resulted in Davis and Shuey coming back to the parking lot, as well. The judge then noted that the individual with whom Opmanis had a previous violent history was already gone and would have remained gone if it had not been for Opmanis’s insistence on inviting the attention of the motorcyclists. “Mr Shuey came back to the parking lot after he had left,” the judge said.
Judge Umeda continued with his description of what he could discern on the video, saying that in the closing seconds of 9:14 pm, “Mr. Davis is seen approaching the defendant. The defendant appears to be turning his back.” It is shortly after that point that the 13 second gap ensues. When the video resumes at 9:14:09 pm, Judge Umeda said, “You see movement. You see the person in the black T-shirt still by the car. You hear the shot, one shot. That’s what the court sees. This raises more issues for the court than it answers about what happened before the shot is fired.”
Judge Umeda continued, “Many cases [are about] who did it. This is a case of who[m] do you believe. The credibility of the defendant and the credibility of Mr. Codman and Mr. Shuey [are defining issues in the case].”
Neither Codman, Shuey nor Opmanis were sterling examples of believability, Judge Umeda said. This called for an examination, interpretation and a balancing of their differing versions of events, the judge said. Ultimately, however, Judge Umeda said, he as the judge should not be empowered with that interpretation or ultimate determination, which more properly rests with a jury. He cited decisions in the cases of People vs. Marilyn Zemek and Cooley vs. Superior Court, which held that a magistrate has a limited role in making a credibility determination in a preliminary hearing and that dismissing the case is not called for even if the defense is seen to be slightly more credible than the prosecution’s witnesses. The only justification for dismissing a case against a defendant at the preliminary hearing level, Judge Umeda said, is if the case presented by the prosecution is inherently implausible or the witnesses against the defendant have been impeached to the point that they cannot be deemed credible. Issues in doubt should be determined at trial, Judge Umeda said. He said the court has to rely on the credibility of the witnesses.
“So, as to the question of imperfect self defense,” Judge Umeda said, “for there to be perfect self-defense, the defendant has to actually believe he is in danger of being killed or suffering great bodily injury.” Judge Umeda said the right to self defense cannot be applied to a situation where someone provokes a circumstance to bring about a threat to himself and then uses that as “an excuse to use force.”
Judge Umeda said, “There were credibility problems with regard to all of the witness statements. They [Shuey and Codman] waited to report the crime. After they were requested to give statements, they did so only with attorneys present. The defendant gave numerous inconsistent statements with regard to why he was honking the horn and when he obtained the firearm from his car. And so, at this time, I find that the evidence provided by the prosecution witnesses through [their statements] is not inherently implausible in terms of what happened that night. Mr. Shuey said that after he had circled back to the parking lot he came upon Mr. Codman and Mr. Davis in a verbal altercation with Mr. Opmanis, and Mr. Codman said that Davis had approached the defendant in a hostile manner and was taking his gear off. Then you have the blank in the tape.”
Judge Umeda said that “It is during that blank in the surveillance video that the real facts regarding self-defense [exist], whether it [the act of shooting Davis] was unreasonable. After reviewing the evidence and the witnesses, the court finds there is probable cause to hold the defendant to answer whether murder was committed.”
Judge Umeda set March 3 for Opmanis’s arraignment. He heard Striker’s request that Opmanis be granted a recognizance release from custody or a reduction of his $1 million bail, based on the consideration that in the more than one month period after the shooting and prior to his arrest Opmanis had not fled and had cooperated with the investigators working the case right up to the time he was taken into custody. Rabb opposed that request, citing Opmanis’s previous residency in Utah and continuing connections to that state. Judge Umeda turned down the recognizance release or bail reduction requests based, he said, “on the severity of the offense and that a firearm was used.”
Mark Gutglueck

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