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Homicide Trial for Former Hancock Athletes Will be Held in Lompoc Due to Crowded Santa Maria Court

More than three years after the arrest of two Allan Hancock College basketball players in connection with a fatal shooting in Santa Maria, their trial began this week with an unusual plan due to clogged court calendars. 

Jury selection, with 180 potential candidates expected to be called, began Wednesday morning in Judge James Voysey’s Santa Maria courtroom and likely will continue through the remainder of the month.

But in an effort to work around a busy court schedule, opening statements, witness testimony and closing arguments will occur in a little-used courtroom in Lompoc.

“There’s a number of cases that look like they’re going to take longer than a three- or four-day trial,” said Darrel Parker, court executive officer. “And they’re sort of creating a bottleneck. This effort is to have a judge focus all his time just trying that case in order to move it through the pipeline.”

Former Hancock basketball players Ali Mohammed, 22, and Lavell White, 25, were arrested on connection with a fatal shooting of Terrence Richardson, 23, in December 2014.

Investigators say the killing occurred during a drug buy in which the defendants instead tried to rob the dealer, who was the vehicle’s driver. Richardson sat in the passenger seat of the vehicle parked near Bradley Road and Jones Street.

The driver raced Richardson to Marian Regional Medical Center, where he died from the gunshot wound, authorities said. 

Both defendants are also alleged to have committed multiple residential burglaries around the Santa Maria Valley. 

A combination of scheduling conflicts has conspired to delay the trial, one of several homicide cases stacked up in Santa Maria courts leading to the decision to try the case in Lompoc.

On Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney Stephanie Savrnoch and defense attorneys Michael Scott and Lori Pedego argued pre-trial motions before Voysey, who also handled other housekeeping matters ahead of potential jurors’ arrival Wednesday.

The trial for the former Hancock players may last through April 13, according to one estimate.

While Voysey focuses on the homicide trial, two retired visiting judges, Michael Duffy and Roger Picquet from San Luis Obispo County, will handle other regular court calendar issues in Santa Maria..

The Hancock basketball players trial will occur Monday through Thursday in Lompoc, leaving Friday for the judge and attorneys to deal with other court business.

To accommodate the Lompoc trial, Parker said the courts installed a projector and other equipment commonplace in other courtrooms. 

Additional bailiffs also will be needed in Lompoc, something that would be required wherever the trial occurred, Parker said.

Court staff considered holding the trial in Santa Barbara, but that option was rejected since those facilities are coping with their own backlog.

“Frankly, Santa Barbara’s busy so I don’t see a way to move it to Santa Barbara,” Parker said.

The planned Feb. 5 start of the Refugio Oil Spill-related criminal trial against Plains All-American Pipeline in Santa Barbara has been delayed by another case, to name one.

Another idea involved using a civil courtroom, also rejected for several reasons.

“That was so disruptive it was unworkable,” Parker said.

Civil courtrooms and judges routinely are recruited to help handle criminal cases, including preliminary hearings, to relieve the calendar.

At one point, court staff contemplated converting a Santa Maria Court Complex building’s basement, used to store files, into a courtroom.

“This all comes with some cost, but it’s doable,” Parker said. “We realize longer term we’re likely to need another trial courtroom, but we don’t have another trial judge. Bringing in an assigned judge or reassigning somebody temporarily might be what’s necessary.

“But that capital investment for us is a much more complicated process,” he added.

Whether the Lompoc workaround is used for other cases in the future remains uncertain, Parker said.

“It’s possible, but we’re going to see how effective this is first,” he added.

This isn’t the first time the court staff used a creative solution for a logistical challenge. During the 2014-2015 homicide trial involving six men and their defense attorneys, jury selection occurred at the Santa Maria Fairpark and the trial took place at the Santa Maria Juvenile Court.

To handle that trial, retired Judge Rick Brown returned for the case heard from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., displacing juvenile court.

Another creative solution could be required for a 12-defendant case is working its way thorough the Santa Maria court system, but Parker said it’s too early to talk about those logistical matters.

“We’ve identified a list of issues, not the least of which is space,” Parker said, adding some of the decisions will rest with the judge.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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