After a dispute with the defense team this week, Ventura County Superior Court Judge James Cloninger said in court Friday that not only will he not disqualify himself from the case, he is prepared to force the Alex Medina first-degree murder trial to begin early next year if scheduling conflicts threaten to delay it too long.
Initially hoping to set a November or December trial date, Cloninger’s plan headlong into defense attorney Scott Wipert’s calendar. Because of his involvement in a securities fraud case that he anticipates could run four to six months, Wippert told Cloninger he would prefer to begin sometime in June.
Medina, who is now 17, is accused of stabbing and killing 16-year-old Seth Scarminach in April 2009. The stabbing took place during an unsupervised party at the 2400 block of the Maricopa Highway in Meiners Oaks. Scarminach was pronounced dead at the scene.
Wippert and co-counsel Robyn Bramson asked Cloninger Friday to disqualify himself from ruling further on Medina’s case under California Code of Civil Procedures 170.6 – a peremptory challenge.
The defense team said they were under the impression the case had been assigned to Cloninger for the sole purpose of deciding an earlier recusal motion to disqualify the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office from prosecuting the case.
Although every defendant has a right to present a premptory challenge to remove a judge without question or explanation, they typically occur at the beginning of court proceedings.
A competency hearing, concluded in August, determining Medina was able to assist his counsel during his criminal trial and it delayed the criminal proceedings for nearly three years. This delay caused Cloninger to rule that the challenge was no longer timely.
“It’s not that we don’t want to go to trial, in a perfect world he would be going to juvenile court because he was 14 the time of his arrest,” Wippert said. “Unfortunately, it took so long in the competency trial, and now we have conflict with our schedules. We want to give him his best shot at a fair trial. But we are eager because the truth will finally come out.”
Wippert and Bramson said they might seek to disqualify Cloninger in appellate court.
“Alex won’t get a fair trial under this judge,” Wippert said.
To keep the proceedings moving, Cloninger scheduled a meeting Jan. 4 for the court to check the lawyers’ schedules to determine if forcing the trial is necessary.
“If that case is delayed, the judge will force this case to go to trial,” said Senior Deputy District Attorney Bill Haney.
The case could go to trial as early as March if Cloninger finds cause to set it in motion, according to Wippert.
Medina faces a possible life sentence if convicted on first-degree murder charges. Multiple additional felony offenses, or enhancements, could add to the length of his sentence, if convicted. Use of a deadly weapon, committing of the crime for the benefit of a street gang and committing the crime while a participant in a street gang are included in the charges.