Judge rejects new trial in double-fatal crash, will decide whether potential juror’s dismissal was race-related

Crime Watch

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — A Superior Court judge on Monday rejected a motion for a new trial but scheduled a hearing to determine whether there was discrimination on the part of a prosecutor who dismissed a Black potential juror in a double-murder case.

There are only two possible outcomes to the hearing: either the judge will find prosecutor Jim Simson had legitimate race-neutral reasons in dismissing the potential juror, or there was racial bias.

If Judge John W. Lua finds there were valid reasons for the dismissal, the convictions will stand. But if evidence of discrimination is found a new trial will be ordered.

The hearing will center around the 2017 jury selection in the case of Dontrell Collins, 37, who was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder, among other offenses, for a fiery crash on Rosedale Highway that killed two women and seriously injured a third. Prosecutors said he was high on PCP and drove in excess of 100 mph.

Collins, who is Black, was sentenced to 73 years to life.

In February, however, the 5th District Court of Appeal conditionally overturned the convictions and ordered Collins returned to Kern County for the hearing on possible discrimination.

Joshua P. Fleshman, the attorney representing Collins, argued Monday too much time has passed for the court to hold what’s called a Batson-Wheeler challenge regarding the juror’s dismissal.

For example, Fleshman said, the judge must assess Simson’s demeanor at the time of the challenge, and the potential juror’s demeanor when questioned by attorneys. That’s no longer possible, he said.

“The passage of time presents an issue for the court’s credibility determination in another way — the prosecutor has now had over four years to come up with race-neutral reasons for his excusal of (the potential juror),” Fleshman said in a motion filed Friday. “Any reasons not originally offered in the trial court should be viewed with extreme skepticism.”

Simson, who has since left the District Attorney’s office, told the court he can explain his reasoning and will provide defense counsel with notes he made during the jury selection process.

While acknowledging a significant amount of time has passed, Lua noted there have been cases where even more time had elapsed — he cited one that was seven years old — and a Batson-Wheeler challenger was held.

The judge denied Fleshman’s motion and set the hearing for Feb. 7.

In 2017, Jared Thompson, the attorney who represented Collins at trial, argued Simson did not provide a single race-neutral reason for excusing the potential juror.

Lua gave three race-neutral reasons, and Simson simply repeated the court’s reasons, Fleshman’s motion said.

The reasons given were that the potential juror’s employment gave her some understanding of potential evidence that might be presented, that she had been prosecuted for petty theft, that she had cousins in prison and that a relative was convicted of assault charges resulting from what the potential juror called a “mental breakdown.”

In its ruling, the appellate court said Simson did not ask “a single meaningful question” of the prospective juror. He didn’t ask about the petty theft charge or the cousins’ incarceration despite giving those as reasons for excusing her, the justices said.

The appellate court also noted Simson accepted seven jurors who were connected to criminal charges, including two jurors convicted of DUI.

Of the jurors seated for Collins’ trial, one was black.

Early Aug. 29, 2014, Pavinder Kaur Claire, Jaclyn Kvasnicka and Jessica Magee were traveling on Rosedale Highway when Collins’ Ford Crown Victoria slammed into the rear of their car, rupturing its gas tank. The car burst into flames.

Claire, 22, and Kvasnicka. 27, were pinned in and died. A third occupant, Jessica Magee, escaped with the help of a bystander and a California Highway Patrol officer. She suffered severe burns.

Collins’ behavior at the scene was bizarre. He shouted and jumped, flexed his muscles, and repeatedly screamed, “I love you, I love you!” according to witnesses.

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