This is the first in a series of articles about some of the most effective defenses to first-degree murder charges in California as employed in a handful of high-profile cases, including the very first murder case I was ever involved in (as a law clerk).
I have been representing homicide clients (including for attempted murder) for well over a decade (as part of my near-16 years of practice), and am currently defending three separate first-degree murder cases, including a special-circumstances case that involves a potential death-penalty sentence.
The state's primary murder charges are codified in the following Penal Code sections:
- California Penal Code section 187 (Definition of "Murder");
- California Penal Code section 188 (Definition of "Malice");
- California Penal Code section 189 ("Felony-Murder Rule");
- California Penal Code section 190 (Elements of First and Second-Degree Murder); and
- California Penal Code section 190.2 (Capital Murder/Special-Circumstances Murder).
A Personal Note About Why I Love to Handle Homicide Cases
It’s hard to explain why I love defending homicide cases so much, but it’s something I’ve wanted to do since my first year of law school. I suppose it’s because of a number of factors, not least of which is the fact that the stakes are the highest for the defendant. When someone facing life in prison (or even a possible death penalty), it means the client (and the client’s family) is literally trusting me with his or her life. That’s certainly not something I take lightly.
It’s also in these types of prosecutions where – not unlike in drug cases – that the defendant’s civil liberties are most trampled upon. Specifically, for both detectives and prosecutors, a murder conviction serves as a big feather in their cap, and leads to public accolades, promotions, and advancement.
Unfortunately, as a result, for some of these individuals, the ends justify the means, which is precisely what our legal system is supposed to prevent. I’ve dealt with far too many murder and attempted murder cases where the investigation was sloppily carried out, particularly when the defendant is an alleged gang member (when oftentimes he or she has nothing whatsoever to do with gangs).
In other words, usually my homicide-crime clients are Black or Latino (though not always), so I feel a particular responsibility to “rage against the machine” on their behalf. I’m, of course, referring to the investigative and prosecutorial machine comprised of the LA County DA’s Office, the LAPD, and the Sheriff’s Department.
Thus, it’s with the under-represented who always seem to be in need of a strong defense lawyer fighting on their behalf against the powers-that-be. And I know I’m not supposed to get emotionally attached to my clients but I can’t help doing so after spending so much time with them (usually while visiting them in jail – at least in murder/attempted murder cases), speaking to them so often on the phone, and spending so much time talking to their loved ones. But I think it makes me fight that much harder for them.
The week before last I attended the memorial service of the greatly-beloved mother of one of my all-time favorite clients – an innocent man who was facing two life sentences, and whose case was dismissed on the first day of jury trial when I provided the DA’s Office with overwhelming, irrefutable evidence of his innocence. He went free that same day after not seeing the sun for 14 months.
I became quite close to his mother during his long criminal ordeal. She attended every hearing and never once doubted – not even in her darkest hours – her son’s innocence. I found out at that memorial service that she referred to me as “a fierce lioness protecting her cub” in the way I defended her son.
That made me smile because I never thought of myself that way before, but I guess it’s true – if you’re going to try to take one of my cub’s lives away with a murder prosecution, then you’d better gear up for the fight of your career.
Overview of Effective Defenses to Murder Prosecutions
Although I break up this series of articles by distinct defense strategies, no single strategy – i.e., no one defense – ever works to defeat a murder prosecution. Instead, a number of different attacks will be employed – and certainly most effectively by a highly skilled and experienced attorney.
Notwithstanding, I can say that in all of the high-profile cases I discuss in this series, one strategy arguably stands out as being most effective in any particular murder trial.
As far as the strategies I favor in my own cases, I’ll reserve comment because I use them repeatedly and will do so in the murder and attempted murder cases I’m currently handling. Or as someone once told me, “Never telegraph your punches.”
Defense Strategy #1:
Present Counter-Circumstantial Evidence to Support Your Alternate MurderTheory
Many murder cases lack direct evidence, meaning there is no eyewitness, confession, murder weapon, video or audio evidence, or perhaps even a corpse. Instead, these cases rely on indirect or circumstantial evidence from which the prosecutor hopes the jury will be able to infer guilt.
Many innocent people have been convicted as a result of such “inferences”, including – according to truly outstanding organizations such as the Innocence Project and the Southern Poverty Law Center – as much as ten percent of the condemned inmates on death rows across the country, including California (in San Quentin State Prison).
As a result, if “all” the Deputy DA has against you is circumstantial evidence, then your attorney better damn well present your own “counter-evidence”. In other words, for every piece of circumstantial evidence “the People” present against you, you’d better have your own circumstantial evidence to present to the jury.
And better yet, your counter-evidence should strongly support an entirely different scenario of how the murder actually happened – in a way that, of course, had nothing to do with you.
Please understand that every jury needs to see a complete picture of the defendant’s culpability or lack thereof. So when only circumstantial evidence is presented, as a defendant, your attorney needs to present a completely alternate theory of what happened or, more realistically, what might have happened.
Keep in mind that it’s the prosecution’s burden to prove all the elements of murder beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, if your defense counsel can present at least some evidence that throws a proverbial wrench into the DA’s version of events, then that should be enough to create reasonable doubt in the jurors’ minds.
The 2019 Murder Trial of Multi-Millionaire Tiffany Li, the “Hillsborough Heiress”
The defense of Tiffany Li is the perfect example of how your lawyer should slug it out with the prosecutor, blow for blow, when the parties are dueling over circumstantial evidence in a murder trial.
I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of this case, considering it was not only major news in the Silicon Valley and Bay Area, but was even featured in People magazine. Here’s how this fascinating case – which was filled with enough twists and turns for a Hollywood movie – played out....
The Meeting (April 28, 2016)
On April 28, 2016, at approximately 10:30 pm, Keith Green (twenty-seven) walked across the street from his apartment in Millbrae (a small town in San Mateo County located 12 miles southwest of San Francisco). He was going to meet with his former girlfriend and mother of his two young daughters at a restaurant. Immediately after meeting her, he vanished from the face of the Earth.
His ex was a Chinese national named Tiffani Li (then age thirty-one), whose parents were wealthy real estate developers in China worth more than $150 million, and who had powerful contacts within the Chinese military.
Li and Green had met seven years earlier in 2007, fallen in love, moved in together, and had two children together. It was an attraction of opposites with Lee being a sophisticated and educated heiress, and Green hailing from a blue-collar family with only a high school diploma. Their turbulent affair ended in the fall of 2015 after Green allegedly caught her cheating on him with his best friend, Kaveh Bayat (then 29).
In October 2015, she kicked Green out of the house and Bayat promptly moved in. (The new couple reportedly got engaged sometime thereafter.)
By all accounts, Green – who only had a part-time, minimum-wage job – was constantly pressuring her for money. Things got so ugly between them that Li even once falsely accused Green of stealing her $150,000 Mercedes G-Wagon. (Police declined to arrest him after investigating the accusation.)
In any event, the exes were supposed to meet that fateful night to work out a settlement agreement that would allow Green visitation rights and provide him with some money. Green said goodbye to his live-in girlfriend, told her he would be back later that night, then left with his cell phone but without his wallet and keys.
They met in the rear parking lot of the restaurant, sat in her G-Wagon for an hour, had a friendly conversation, then Li left. Shortly thereafter, Green – who never made it back across the street to his apartment – mysteriously disappeared. See bbc.com.
The Body (May 11, 2016)
The next day, April 29, 2016, Green’s girlfriend reported him missing to the police.
The day after that, on April 30th, Green’s cell phone was found in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. That’s when the missing person’s report blew up into a major murder investigation with the focus immediately shifting to Li and Bayat as possible suspects.
Ten days later, on May 11th (13 days after Green’s disappearance), a hiker stumbled across a badly decomposed corpse – half-eaten by wild animals – strewn off a dirt road in a particularly remote and rural part of Sonoma County (off Highway 101 near Geyserville), located almost eighty miles away from the restaurant.
Dental records produced a match: it was Green, whom the county pathologist claimed had been shot once through the mouth, execution-style. (One of his teeth had been chipped, leading detectives to believe the firearm had been forced into his mouth.) See abc7news.com.
The Arrests (May 20 & 21, 2016)
Through cell-phone-tower pings and social media postings – police believed Olivier Adella (forty), a former MMA fighter, Li and Bayat’s personal trainer and bodyguard, and their former friend, was somehow involved.
On May 20, 2016, police arrested Adella at his Burlingame apartment in San Mateo County, and the DA's Office charged him with the following offenses:
- Second-Degree Murder under California Penal Code section 192(a)&(b) (because prosecutors did not have evidence of deliberation or premeditation at that time); and
- Conspiracy to Commit Murder under California Penal Code section 189(e) (as an alternative theory of the crime).
In addition, the DA's Office charged each of the foregoing as Strike Offenses under California Penal Code section 667(a)&(b).
Adella's tough-guy facade melted when detectives searched his place and found a diamond-encrusted Cartier watch worth tens of thousands of dollars – which they later learned had been Green’s – as well as more than $35,000 in cash.
After they confronted him with this evidence, including the cell-tower pings, Adella immediately told detectives a truly bizarre story wherein Li and Bayat had arrived at his apartment the night of Green’s disappearance with Green’s dead body in the back seat of Li’s G-Wagon.
He claimed that they offered him $50,000 to dispose of the corpse, which he reluctantly accepted. But he said he did so more out of fear of Li, whom he indicated had underworld connections and, therefore, could have him murdered, as well. Finally, he told detectives that he was willing to flip against Li and Bayat because he was afraid the couple would blame him for the murder.
He then told detectives that with the couple’s help, they had moved Green’s body from the G-Wagon into Adella’s Chrysler sedan, then he drove up to San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge before dumping the corpse, returning to San Francisco, and discarding the phone in Golden Gate Park.
As a result, the next day, May 21st, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department’s SWAT team descended on Li’s multi-million-dollar mansion in Hillsborough (one of the wealthiest enclaves in the U.S., home to numerous tech billionaires, and located 12 miles south of San Francisco on the Peninsula).
Because the estate’s massive iron front gates were locked, and Li reportedly refused to open them upon demand, the SWAT team used a heavy vehicle to rip them off, then swarmed in. Li and Bayat were then arrested on suspicion of First-Degree Murder under Penal Code section 190 and Conspiracy to Commit Murder under Penal Code section 189(e). See kron4.com.
Aftermath of the Arrests
On May 24, 2016, all three suspects were formally charged by the San Mateo County DA’s Office, which now upgraded the offenses to include First-Degree Murder with Special Circumstances/Capital Murder under Penal Code section 190.2 based on the murder-for-hire allegation, which came with a possible death penalty upon conviction. (However, the DA's Office only sought life without parole for the three defendants.)
The case immediately drew global attention and was covered extensively in China (particularly in Hong Kong), London, and across the entire U.S. This was not surprising in light of all the lurid details and allegations, including the love-triangle and the photogenic aesthetics of the involved parties. See latimes.com.
Bail for Li and Bayat was set at a whopping $35 million, which was the eighth highest state-court bail ever set in the United States, and the highest in San Mateo County. Nevertheless, it’s unclear why it took Li’s family more than ten months to post the cash and property to secure her release in light of their wealth.
But when they finally did on April 4, 2017 – by paying almost $4.3 million in cash and collateralizing more than $60 million in California real estate – that, too, made international news. See people.com.
(FYI, in California, you typically have to put up twice the bail amount in real property to secure the bond.)
In any event, Li was released and placed on “mansion arrest” with an electronic ankle monitor. Bayat, however, would remain in custody through trial (as would Adella) over the next three years.
No doubt the incredible stress exacerbated Li’s breast cancer – its diagnosis and aggressive treatment resulted in a substantial delay of her and Bayat’s trial (see below).
Adella’s Plea Deal (February 26, 2018)
After sitting in jail awaiting his own trial for more than one year and nine months, the DA’s Office finally formalized its plea deal with Adella. (It remains unclear why they took so long to do this.) So on February 26, 2018, Adella signed his cooperation agreement. It entailed the prosecution dismissing the murder count against him in consideration for him testifying against his two alleged confederates, and for pleading no content (nolo contendre) to Aiding and Abetting Murder/Accessory After the Fact to Murder under California Penal Code section 32.
As a result, at that time, Adella pled nolo contendre to being a murder-accessory after the fact, and confirmed on the record in court that he had dumped the victim’s corpse at the couple’s behest. See smdailyjournal.com.
Stunning Announcements on the Eve of Trial (September 9, 2019)
On or about September 9, 2019 – one week before trial was scheduled to commence -- the DA himself made a shocking announcement to the presiding judge in Li and Bayat’s trial: Adella would no longer be called to testify against them because he had allegedly threatened his ex-girlfriend through Instagram for agreeing to testify as a defense witness.
As the DA explained, by doing so, Adella had violated his cooperation agreement which prohibited him from contacting anyone connected to the case.
As clearly indicated by the DA’s on-the-record statements, Adella had proven to be an extremely difficult and unreliable witness ever since he flipped.
(Interestingly, the fact that Adella had failed two polygraph examinations about his claims shortly after he was arrested had nevertheless not dissuaded the DA’s Office from keeping him as a prosecution witness as long as it did.)
One week later, the DA’s Office officially revoked Adella’s agreement, then re-arrested him (although it remains unclear on what charge). He was immediately denied bail. Notwithstanding, Adella would not face additional charges related to the alleged threat, much less additional jail time. See mercurynews.com.
The Trial Commencement (September 23, 2019)
On September 23, 2019 – three years and four months after their arrest -- Li and Bayat’s murder trial began in the San Mateo Superior Courthouse in Redwood City.
The prosecution opened by explaining to the jury their theory of what transpired, including the defendants’ alleged underlying motives. Specifically, the lead prosecutor claimed that Li had grown tired of Green’s incessant demands for money and was worried she would somehow lose custody of their two children to him.
Bayat, the prosecutor claimed, was threatened by Green wanting to reconcile with Li, which, if successful, would have ended his cushy lifestyle. As a result, the two of them hatched a plan to murder Green, and would use Adella – who was beholden to them financially (including living rent-free in one of Li’s parents’ local properties) – to dispose of the body.
It was the defense’s turn next for an opening statement. The alternating attorneys for Li and Bayat hammered at the fact that the prosecution had no direct evidence whatsoever, and would only present their case via highly circumstantial evidence, which the defense would not only be able to counter, but which would actually support their theory that it was Adella who had murdered Green.
Specifically, they said that all of the evidence – including the prosecution’s – would show that it was more likely that the killing occurred as the result of a botched kidnapping plot hatched by Adella, with no knowledge or involvement from the defendants.
Needless to say, the jury would remain on the edge of their seat for the duration of the trial.
The Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Law Firm (LADALF)
LADALF founder Ninaz Saffari has been practicing criminal-defense law for almost 16 years (as of this writing), including four years as an LA County Deputy Public Defender. As a veteran trial attorney, she has successfully defended many individuals who were facing life in prison. She particularly excels at fighting homicide charges, including the following current cases:
People v. R.: two Capital Murder charges under Pen. Code § 190.2 for two alleged victims (including a minor), and two Deliberate and Premeditated Attempted Murder (“First-Degree Attempted Murder”) under California Penal Code section 664 & Pen. Code § 187(a) charges for two additional alleged victims – Long Beach Courthouse (facing two potential death-penalty sentences plus two maximum life sentences with parole for third and fourth alleged victims, including enhancements for Inflicting Great Bodily Injury under California Penal Code section 12022.7, Injuring an Elderly Person under California Penal Code section 368(b)(2), Personally Discharging a Firearm During the Commission of a Serious Felony under California Penal Code section 12022.53(c), and Gang Enhancement under California Penal Code section 186.22.
People v. J.: first-degree murder charge for first alleged victim and attempted murder charge of second alleged victim, both with special allegations of discharging a firearm – Long Beach Courthouse (facing two life sentences with no parole).
People v. D.: a first-degree murder charge with special allegations of felony committed for benefit of a criminal street gang and discharging a firearm – Criminal Court Building in DTLA (facing maximum life sentence with no parole).
People v. C.: premeditated attempted murder charge with special allegations of felony committed for benefit of a criminal street gang and discharging a firearm – Criminal Court Building in DTLA (facing maximum life sentence with no parole).