The defense attorney for a man sentenced Thursday in a 2012 slaying and attempted murder in Salinas’ Chinatown said Friday he filed an appeal claiming testimony by a California Highway Patrol officer should not have been allowed by the trial judge. Richard Rutledge said he filed the notice of appeal in the 6th District Court of Appeals in San Jose on Thursday, the same day a judge in Superior Court in Salinas sentenced Adnan Nijmeddin to 17 years to life in prison. Judge Julie Culver handed down the sentence on Nijmeddin, who was convicted by a jury in November of second-degree murder in the death of 47-year-old Billy Idris Rajah Jr. and attempted voluntary manslaughter and assault with a deadly weapon on 48-year-old Raymond Collins, prosecutors said.
“The jury heard all of the evidence and within about three hours, returned a guilty verdict of murder in the second degree and attempted voluntary manslaughter,” Deputy District Attorney Joseph Buckalew said. But Rutledge said, “I don’t feel the evidence bore out the verdict.” Prosecutors said that on January 17, 2012, Nijmeddin, during a dispute over a debt from an illegal drug sale, argued with Collins, whose nickname was “Chino,” on a sidewalk in the area of Market Way and Soledad Street in Salinas’ old Chinatown district.
Rajah, a bystander, then threw a chair that cracked the windshield of the SUV and Nijmeddin drove onto the sidewalk toward the two men, followed Rajah onto an adjacent dirt lot and ran him over, dragging him about 30 feet. Rajah later died at a hospital in San Jose.
During the nine-day trial in November, prosecutors had a CHP officer testify over Rutledge’s objections that in the officer’s opinion Nijmeddin drove the SUV onto the sidewalk and at the two men. But Rutledge said that photos used as evidence by the defense showed the SUV’s skid marks were on the road, not the sidewalk. The CHP officer did not qualify as an expert on skid marks and a Salinas police officer who took measurements at the scene testified he could not confirm the CHP’s officer’s claims, according to Rutledge.
In his appeal, Rutledge said he is arguing that the judge should have never allowed the CHP officer’s testimony before the jury and that Culver at first denied the prosecution’s request for the officer to testify about the skid marks but then reversed her decision. Rutledge also disagreed with other aspects of the prosecutor’s case. The initial dispute was not exactly about a drug-related debt, but about an Electric Benefit Transfer, or EBT, card that Collins gave him from a woman who bought drugs from Nijmeddin, but for which Nijmeddin could not use because he did not have the password.
When Nijmeddin gave the EBT card back to Collins, he realized he gave the man his own EBT card by mistake and asked for it back since the card had a couple hundred dollars on it, the lawyer said. An argument ensued and at one point, a woman came by and threatened to call the police if Nijmeddin did not leave. Other people also arrived and according to some witnesses, started throwing things like bricks and rocks at Nijmeddin’s SUV, Rutledge said.
That was when Rajah, who was not involved in the dispute over the EBT card, threw the chair that cracked the SUV’s windshield, he said. Nijmeddin testified that at that point, his SUV was in neutral facing the sidewalk and while the people were throwing things, he thought he had shifted into reverse but he put it into drive instead, bumping onto the sidewalk, his lawyer said. He then changed to reverse, causing the tires to spin and burn rubber on the street and performed a three-point turn in an attempt to drive away and exit over the dirt lot, Rutledge said.
With the sun glaring on SUV’s windshield, he could not see either Collins or Rajah, who was running on the lot and then tripped and fell down and Nijmeddin drove over him in what Rutledge described as “a perfect storm.” The jury ended up convicting Nijmeddin for second-degree murder, not the first-degree count prosecutors charged him with, his lawyer said. Rutledge said while some witnesses said that the victim was dragged 30 feet, others did not.
Nijmeddin, who was afraid, drove to his residence, a rented room next to an auto repair shop several blocks away on Commission Street, parked his SUV, told workers there the vehicle needed fixing and went into his room before Salinas police arrested him, he said.
The CHP officer who served as a prosecution witness filed a report based on an examination of the breaks and other parts of the SUV but not the skid marks left by the SUV at the scene, Rutledge said. The judge was wrong to permit the officer to testify about the skid marks to counter defense claims that the defendant did not drive onto the sidewalk to try to hit Collins and Rajah, he said. Buckalew said that the jury decided in favor of convicting Nijmeddin of second-degree murder for Rajah’s slaying because it felt there was insufficient evidence of premeditation by the defendant.
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