Opening Statements and Witness Controversy in Modesto Murder Trial

By Isabelle Brady

MODESTO, CA – Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Dawna Reeves presided over the beginning of a murder trial here Tuesday, listening to opposing attorneys debating whether or not the prosecution had inappropriately coached a witness.

Manpreet Atwal faces a felony murder charge for allegedly causing a fatal car accident.

The trial began smoothly, with Deputy District Attorney Vita Palazuelos presenting her version of the story of the case to the jury.

The DDA said that on January 21, 2017, a couple and their son were driving in a motorhome from Yuba, Arizona, back to their home in Vancouver. They were on I-99 when at approximately 4:20 a.m. a vehicle struck their motorhome, causing it to fall onto its side. One person died in the motorhome wreckage.

Atwal, Palazuelos claims, had been drunk the night before and into the early morning. He was allegedly driving at 90 miles an hour on the freeway in rainy weather when he caused the crash.

Defense Attorney Preciliano Martinez declined to give an opening statement.

The first witness was Keri Pickett, a public safety dispatch supervisor for the California Highway Patrol. During her testimony, DDA Palazuelos provided an audio clip of the 911 call made after the accident.

A man can be heard in the clip relaying the information that “a little white car” “lost control” on the I-99 and caused a crash involving an RV. He later reported “multiple injuries” and a “possible missing person.”

After Pickett’s testimony came that of Officer John Buxie, a road officer with the California Highway Patrol who became the cause of a conflict between Palazuelos and Martinez.

Most of his testimony concerned his job—how he had been on the night shift and was on duty in the early hours of Jan. 21, 2017, how he received a call about an accident with paramedics en route, and how he responded to the area.

He described a crash scene involving three vehicles: a white Honda at the base of an embankment, a motorhome whose side had collapsed, and a silver Honda that had been towed by the motorhome.

“All” of the people who had been in the motorhome “were being treated by paramedics” when he arrived.

When Officer Buxie and his partner approached the white Honda, “it was unoccupied” and “there was no one ejected from the vehicle.” The airbags were deployed.

When they ran the plates, they found that the registered owners were Manpreet Atwal and his father, Harbhajan Atwal.

Harbhajan Atwal, as well as the suspect’s mother and brother, later arrived at Highway 99 and Officer Buxie said he spoke to them.

During cross-examination, defense counsel Martinez pressed Officer Buxie about whom he interviewed. He said that he had spoken to no witnesses to the actual incident excluding the victims, though he did say that he spoke to a “Mr. Vetterino.”

Officer Buxie later said, “I was instructed not to bring up his name at all.”

“Who told you that?” Martinez asked in response.

“I was instructed to,” the officer replied.

After Martinez kept pressing him, Officer Buxie made a gesture and DDA Palazuelos said, “I think he’s pointing at me.”

On a subsequent direct examination, Officer Buxie said that Palazuelos had instructed him “not to talk about what other people said, only what he observed” and “not to add additional information” beyond the question posed.

After the afternoon break, Palazuelos and Martinez argued before the judge regarding Officer Buxie’s last bit of testimony.

“I saw the movement and I looked and her hand was going back towards herself,” Martinez said. “I didn’t know whether or not she was gesturing at him to say her name, but she said it…it was after that that he testified that it was Ms. Palazuelos that told him not to say anything.

“But it was improper for her to gesture to herself indicating that he could say her name. That’s totally improper,” said the defense.

“You’re objecting to her responding to his nonverbal appeal for an answer?” Judge Reeves asked.

“Yes, because he wouldn’t answer that question,” Martinez replied.

Judge Reeves considered Martinez’s complaint and said, “It seems to me—at least from what I’ve heard so far—that Ms. Palazuelos instructed the witness not to talk about that person’s statements, and the witness took that to mean ‘don’t talk about the witness at all.’”

“It’s fine,” Judge Reeves continued. “I’m just telling you that if she wants to explain further, I’m gonna have to let her do that.”

DDA Palazuelos did want to explain further. She said that Officer Buxie did not have much experience testifying and that her “goal with meeting with Officer Buxie was to ensure that he didn’t say anything” about the victims’ statements or Mr. Vetterino’s. She said that she wanted to explain hearsay to him.

The goal of her meeting, she said, was to ensure that there wasn’t a mistrial. And that Officer Buxie was nervous “because his job is to write tickets, not to investigate.”

After that conversation, Detective Telea Martin took the stand and testified to her investigation.

Detective Martin said that she received a phone call at about 5:15 a.m. to come investigate a fatal car accident. She said that she collected the body of the deceased from the wreckage of the RV and found a cell phone in the white Honda.

Following Detective Martin, the suspect’s brother and father testified. The former spoke of the cars that Atwal was driving in January of 2017. He said that Atwal had access to the Honda, to a Sequoia and to a Camry because the family shared their cars.

Atwal’s father testified that he and Atwal both owned the white Honda and that Atwal was its primary driver in January 2017.

After his testimony, Judge Reeves recessed for the day. The trial will reconvene Wednesday.

About The Author

Isabelle is a first year undergraduate student at UC Santa Barbara majoring in philosophy. Her passions include writing, criminal justice reform and reading Kurt Vonnegut. She may or may not eventually attend law school.

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