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All Five Co-Defendants Convicted of Chamberlain Murder

October 27, 2011

Fred Thiagarajah

This was a difficult case for me.  First, this was my very first murder case.  Second, I was not Stephen Carlstrom’s first attorney.  His first attorney was an attorney appointed by the government back in 2006.  That person represented Mr. Carlstrom for two years, before his family hired a private attorney.  The former private attorney represented Mr. Carlstrom for another two years and his trial was scheduled for February 2011.  I was hired in February 2011, just weeks before the trial was slated to begin.  Deputy District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh wasn’t happy when I asked to replace Mr. Carlstrom’s previous attorney because he knew I would need a few months to prepare for trial and this case was already five years old.  Judge Stotler allowed me to enter the case but only gave me four months to bring myself up to speed on five years worth of work, which brings me to reason #3.  There was 10,000 pages of discovery and another 10,000 pages of grand jury transcripts.

I had my work cut out for me.  Nevertheless, I hired another attorney to handle the rest of my cases and I devoted myself full time to bringing myself up to speed on this case.   I met with Mr. Carlstrom in custody almost every week for four months.  I gave his wife and his mother my personal cell phone and spoke with each of them dozens of times.  I locked myself up in my office and poured through the discovery with fine tooth comb.  I compiled witness spreadsheets and extensive cross-examination notes and started working on closing arguments before the trial even began.  When the trial started in June 2011, I hit the ground running.

This trial lasted three months.  It was a grueling, emotionally draining trial.  Judge Stotler presided the trial.  He was a very knowledgeable, hard-working and patient jurist.  The District Attorney’s office was represented by Senior Deputy District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh and Deputy District Attorney Keith Bogardus.  Both gentlemen were exceptionally bright and hard-working.  This was a high-profile case and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office put up their best and brightest.  Although there were five defense attorneys, we weren’t always working together.  Sometimes there were conflicts amongst us in terms of our strategies and in terms of our individual defenses.  What was good for my client wasn’t always good for the other defendants and vice-versa.

In terms of defenses, some of the defendants denied participation in the assault.  Unfortunately, Mr. Carlstrom admitted to kicking the victim once in the butt.  I have no idea what my client was thinking when this action happened.  However, I have come to know Mr. Carlstrom and his family very well over the last several months, and I don’t believe that Mr. Carlstrom is a “cold-blooded killer”, as he was portrayed by the prosecution.  The weakest part of his defense, though, was the theory of “aiding and abetting”.  Under this theory, a person can be found guilty of the conduct of others and this is exactly what happened in Mr. Carlstrom’s case.  Even though his conduct was limited, he was held accountable for the actions of others because he “aided and abetted” those others.

The specific elements required were: (1) the defendant committed a battery; (2) during the commission of the battery, co-participants in the battery committed second-degree murder; (3) under all the circumstances, a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would have know that the commission of second-degree murder was a natural and probable consequence of the commission of battery.  “Natural and probable consequence” is defined as something a reasonable person would know is likely to happen in nothing unusual intervenes.

There were other theories of second degree murder — conspiracy and malice aforethought.  Although the law requires a jury to reach a unanimous verdict, it doesn’t require them to unanimously believe a specific theory of second degree murder.  In this case, the prosecution alleged three different theories of second-degree murder and as long each juror believed at least one of the theories, that was sufficient for a conviction.  This standard of law also made it difficult to defend Mr. Carlstrom.  We had to tear down every one of the prosecution’s theories.  If even one of their theories were believed, such as aiding & abetting, then Mr. Carlstrom would be convicted.  Fortunately, the defense did tear down the prosecution’s two theories of first degree murder — felony murder and torture.

I had hoped that the jury wouldn’t paint my client with the same broad brush strokes as his co-defendants.  There was a wide spectrum of conduct in this assault and Mr. Carlstrom was clearly on the low end of the spectrum.  And although I am disappointed with the verdict, I am not surprised.  Mr. Carlstrom was dragged down by his co-defendants.  And that’s why you must watch out — not only for what you do, but for whom you do it with.

For more information on the Chamberlain verdict, check out the following articles at the OC Register and the OC Weekly.  Vic Jolly, a reporter for the OC Register, and Nick Schou, a reporter at the OC Weekly, followed the trial almost daily.  Their insights are worth reading.


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