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SAN JOSE — It was criminal defense lawyer Ann Moorman’s “Matlock” moment. Her client, Janice Walker, stood accused of slowly poisoning her 95-year-old mother while looting her estate. Three hours into her cross-examination last week, Moorman forced the prosecution’s star witness — Janice’s son, Grant — to confess that he had forged Janice’s signature on paperwork for the sale of the matriarch’s Florida condo. The dramatic on-the-stand admission dismantled much of the Santa Clara County district attorney’s high-profile elder abuse and fraud case against Janice Walker and her daughter, Cheryl Walker, a renowned fertility researcher at Stanford University. Within hours, the DA dropped all charges against Cheryl Walker and agreed to accept a no-contest plea from Janice Walker in exchange for a two-year prison sentence. “It was a blistering cross-examination,” said Cristina Arguedas, who represented Cheryl. “Ann absolutely annihilated this witness.” But the made-for-TV moment didn’t have to happen. Both sides agree that had the DA taken its charges through a preliminary hearing, rather than to a grand jury, Grant Walker’s weaknesses would likely have been exposed long before he was called to testify at trial, allowing the DA to either better insulate the case or drop it. With that in mind, the DA’s office says it’s now rethinking its use of the grand jury. “Looking back, we should have taken this to a preliminary hearing,” said Assistant DA Karyn Sinunu. “We would have learned everybody has credibility problems, not just the defendants.” Sinunu said the office doesn’t usually take domestic violence cases to the grand jury and said she is now “reviewing the use of the grand jury in all family-type cases.” Deputy DA Cameron Bowman, who tried the case, couldn’t be reached for comment. But Sinunu said the case was complex, and going to the grand jury seemed to make sense at the time. “We wanted to see what we had,” said Sinunu. “We wanted the grand jury to help us make a charging decision.” The pros and cons of going to a grand jury are no secret to prosecutors or defense attorneys. Grand juries can move more quickly and can shield the district attorney from the fallout that can come in complex cases where the decision to charge — and what to charge — is controversial. But when cases proceed through the grand jury, as only about 2 percent of Santa Clara prosecutions do, the defense isn’t able to challenge, early on, the testimony of key witnesses. Grand jury testimony isn’t subject to cross-examination. Defense lawyers say the preliminary hearing can serve as a reality check for prosecutors. “These people, they do not look right or left,” said Arguedas, of Emeryville’s Cooper Arguedas & Cassman. “It’s a case of the DA falling in love with a high-profile elder abuse case.” “A case like this needed testing and challenging early on,” says Moorman. “This is a big flaw with the grand jury system.” Of course, the grand jury has its place, especially in messy investigations where prosecutors aren’t sure whether — or what — to charge. “Typically there are two types of cases taken to the grand jury: the complicated case and the politically sensitive case,” said Palo Alto criminal defense attorney Daniel Barton. “Fajitagate is a classic case to take to the grand jury,” referring to the since-dismissed indictment of top San Francisco police officials. “You want it done fast, and you want the grand jury to take the responsibility.” “Walker was somewhat complicated, but you would not have taken it to the grand jury,” said Barton. “Everyone could learn a lot more about the case by having the witnesses cross-examined and having the full factual record developed.” But sometimes, Barton says, prosecutors will use the grand jury when they know a witness is weak. “They go to the grand jury because they don’t want the defense to get a crack at cross-examining the witness,” said Barton, with Palo Alto’s Nolan, Armstrong & Barton. “They don’t want the defense to look them in their eyes and ask them the difficult questions before they get to trial.” Sinunu said the real concern in the Walker case was that there was a lot of expert medical testimony and extensive financial records. With the alleged victim dead, but without conclusive evidence of homicide, the office wanted the grand jury’s guidance on any charges. The office, she said, didn’t think it had reason to question Janice and Cheryl Walker’s accusers. “It’s clear now we should have investigated them. We trusted them,” Sinunu said. “Everything we gathered supported what they said.” A SLOW DEATH The case blew up on Deputy DA Bowman on the sixth day of trial. Cheryl and Janice Walker were indicted in February 2002 for elder abuse and financial fraud against family matriarch Mary Lee Koleber. In February 2001, the two had moved the ailing woman from her Fort Lauderdale home to San Jose. In the months before and after the move, Koleber had signed powers of attorney giving Janice control of her financial affairs. She died three months after the move, apparently of pneumonia. Before Janice and Cheryl Walker had the body cremated, other family members, including Janice’s son, Grant, demanded an autopsy, saying they suspected foul play. A Santa Clara’s coroner’s report did not pinpoint a cause of death, but noted the presence of morphine, oxycodone and other drugs in Koleber’s system. The Santa Clara DA’s elder abuse unit, relying largely on the coroner’s findings, financial records and the grand jury testimony of family members, pushed forward to trial. Assistant DA Sinunu acknowledged that the case weakened substantially between the indictment and trial. The prosecution’s two prime experts changed their opinions. The coroner, who first said pneumonia didn’t contribute to death, later re-examined the evidence and said he couldn’t rule it out. A prosecution medical expert, who had told the grand jury that morphine and oxycodone suppressed breathing and couldn’t be used to treat pneumonia, later said it could, according to Sinunu. Those experts hadn’t yet testified when Grant Walker took the stand and torched his own credibility. The forgery confession may have just been the final nail. Moorman asked about the signature after the jury had already heard evidence that Janice Walker was in San Jose the day the real estate document selling the condo was signed in Indiana. Before that, Arguedas and Moorman had pressed Walker to acknowledge that shortly after his grand jury testimony, he and other family members filed a civil suit challenging his mother and sister’s inheritance. “They were absolutely using the prosecution to bolster their civil case,” Moorman said. Still, Janice Walker isn’t walking away without substantial jail time. Under a so-called Alfred plea, she agreed to prison time without acknowledging guilt. Moorman said her client accepted the no-contest plea because she and her daughter didn’t want to risk a conviction that would force Cheryl Walker’s children into foster care. Moorman called the outcome a “complete exoneration.” Sinunu retorted that a two-year prison term was hardly exoneration. “We believe the person behind the theft of the money and the oxycodone in the woman’s system was Janice Walker, and she pleaded guilty to two felony counts,” Sinunu said. Still, she said, “It’s clear now everyone wanted this money. It’s a pretty sad story. They are all money-grubbing.”

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