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Defense wants Butler County prosecutors out of expert hearing

Defense attorney Charles M. Rittgers, right, speaks with his client Gurpreet Singh
Posted at 10:52 AM, Nov 29, 2021

HAMILTON, Ohio — Attorneys for a man accused of shooting four family members to death in a West Chester Twp. apartment want prosecutors excluded from being heard on a request made to spend taxpayer money on experts.

It is a matter of trial strategy, according to Gurpreet Singh’s defense team.

Singh is scheduled to be back in Butler County Common Pleas court on Monday for a pretrial hearing about defense experts. The hearing follows weeks of legal wrangling after the defense team requested public money to hire defense experts in the death penalty case.

Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser objected to Judge Greg Howard’s decision in which the judge stated he would consider specific requests filed by the defense for experts, but would not give the defense team a blank check.

A team of attorneys from Rittgers and Rittgers were retained by Singh family members at the time of his arrest in 2019, but they no longer have the funding to pay additional experts the defense says is needed.

A terse response was filed by the defense to Gmoser’s objection, which prompted another pointed response from Gmoser.

Singh, 39, is charged with four counts of aggravated murder for the April 28, 2019, homicides. With specifications of using a firearm and killing two or more persons, Singh faces the death penalty if convicted.

Singh is accused of killing his wife, Shalinderjit Kaur, 39; his in-laws, Hakikat Singh Pannag, 59, and Parmjit Kaur, 62; and his aunt by marriage, Amarjit Kaur, 58, at their residence on Wyndtree Drive. All died with gunshot wounds.

Gmoser objected to the decision in a motion for reconsideration, stating the decision sets a precedent for allowing defense counsel to charge attorney fees that are equal to the defendant’s total assets, then request public funds to pay for a mitigation expert, private investigators and forensic experts.

Prosecutors said that, prior to his arrest, Singh was employed as an owner-operator of a semi-tractor trailer, which is typically valued at $75,000 and $175,000, and that he had at least one bank account with a balance of $75,052.31 and owned real estate in Indianapolis valued at $330,180. Prosecutors also say the defense team has been paid $250,000, according to court documents.

Singh’s defense team responded to Gmoser’s motion, noting the request for public funds does not pertain to attorney fees, but for investigation and experts only.

After a hearing earlier this month, Howard did not change his mind. The judge said he doesn’t like the decision he made, but the last thing he wants is to try the case and have an appellate court overturn the outcome, finding he should have approved money to hire experts.

Now Howard will consider the motion concerning defense expert witnesses and whether that request should be open to the public and the prosecution.

Defense Attorney Neal Schuett said in the motion that any requests and consideration for expert funding should take place without the prosecution or public present.

Schuett wrote: “The defendant seeks the ability to approach the court ex parte as to any additional funds and/or requests for access to the defendant while he is in custody unencumbered by the state of Ohio, who has no right to know the trial strategies and every move of the defense while investigating and defending his life.”

The defense argued it can not adequately address costs, investigative needs, trial and mitigation strategies and other sensitive information with the prosecution or the media watching.

Prosecutors say ex parte proceedings in criminal cases are “contrary to the most basic concepts of American justice and should not be permitted except possibly in the most extraordinary cases involving national security.”

Assistant Prosecutor Jon Marshall also raised a concern that the defendant will use the ex parte hearings as a way to further delay the disclosure requirement of law.

The prosecution has provided the defense with discovery, but the defense has yet to provide “a single item of reciprocal discovery,” he wrote.

Marshall questions if the defense has in two years produced any discoverable evidence despite saying Singh is innocent.

“In fact, on multiple occasions, counsel for the defendant has expressly commented to the local news media that the defendant is ‘absolutely innocent.’ If defense counsel has evidence that the defendant is innocent (and not merely not guilty), one would imagine such evidence would be disclosed immediately so that it could be reviewed and possibly lead to the defendant’s exoneration and release from jail. No such disclosure has been made to date,” Marshall wrote.

The assistant prosecutor added the state has a vested interest in avoiding prosecuting an innocent man.

“Hiding the possibility of such evidence under the cloak of an ex parte meeting with the court and saving the evidence for trial Oct. 2022 seems counterintuitive The state does not want the request for ex parte ability to pay experts to serve as a shield against the defendant’s duty to provide reciprocal discovery in a timely manner,” Marshall said in the court document.