Questions over ex-DA’s possible conflict of interest in murder trial linger in court

Questions over ex-DA’s possible conflict  of interest in murder trial linger in court
Former San Diego County District Attorney Paul Pfingst, right, repeatedly called accusations that he improperly altered evidence during the investigation of Jason Harper’s murder “phony” during a Nov. 22 court hearing. He is representing Julie Harper, left, who is charged with fatally shooting her husband Jason Harper last year. Photo by Rachel Stine

VISTA — Former San Diego County District Attorney Paul Pfingst is facing accusations in court that he altered evidence during the murder investigation of Jason Harper by his wife Julie Harper. 

Pfingst is representing Julie Harper in the trial. The prosecution asserted in a motion filed on Sept. 16 that Pfingst improperly handled Harper’s “get away bag” and removed thousands of dollars in cash before police seized the bag as evidence. The motion also states that Pfingst is holding onto Harper’s cell phone.

The prosecution contends that Pfingst may have conflicts of interest defending Harper because of these actions and the possibility that he may need to testify against his client about the evidence he dealt with before the police.

Addressing the matter during a hearing on Nov. 22, Pfingst repeatedly stated that he has done nothing wrong during the case’s investigation and court proceedings. “That’s a phony issue based on phony facts,” he said.

Deputy District Attorney Keith Watanabe, who is prosecuting the case, stated that the State’s Attorney General has decided not to pursue an investigation into Pfingst’s actions, but argued that the court still needs to address the issue before trial.

Pfingst, who served as San Diego County district attorney for eight years, was hired to represent Harper before authorities were aware of the homicide. Pfingst called Carlsbad Police to direct them to the body.

Authorities allege that Harper killed her husband the morning of Aug. 7, 2012, while their three children watched television downstairs.

The 39-year-old housewife had filed for divorce five days before her husband, a teacher at Carlsbad High School, was killed.

According to court documents, Julie Harper called and met with Pfingst for a couple of hours the same day her husband was shot. Pfingst called Carlsbad Police around 11 p.m. that day and told them to check the second floor of Harper’s home in Carlsbad.

When asked why police needed to check the home, Pfingst allegedly said, “You’ll see when you get there,” and stated that he could not provide any more information due to attorney-client privilege.

Officers found Jason Harper’s body in the master bedroom covered in clothes, a box, a pillow, and other items.

An autopsy revealed that Jason had died from being shot in the left ribcage.

Harper surrendered herself to police on Aug. 8, 2012 at her father’s home, and was taken into custody.

According to the Sept. 16 motion, days after the murder, Pfingst removed $27,000 to $30,000 in cash that was found in Harper’s “get-away bag” before police had the opportunity to seize it for evidence.

Pfingst allegedly found the bag that contained the cash in Julie Harper’s father’s garage. The bag also contained a gun registered to Julie, her passport, her three children’s passports, her deceased husband’s wallet and cell phones, jewelry and other items.

During the Nov. 22 hearing, Pfingst asserted that he did nothing that would lead to a conflict of interest. He stated that he handled the bag in the presence of his investigator and Julie’s father.

He said that half of the money he removed is being used to pay for an attorney for Julie’s father, and agreed to turn over the remaining cash to the prosecution to investigate.

Watanabe stated that while he does not want Pfingst removed from the case, he does want the court to formally address the matter before the case proceeds.

Judge Blaine Bowman decided that Pfingst should respond to the conflict of interest claims, but ruled that portions of his response would be sealed to protect the rights of the defendant.

Harper has been out on $2 million bail since September 2013. She appeared in court for the Nov. 22 hearing wearing a platinum blonde wig, and sat alongside Pfingst.

 

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