Tuesday (July 7), news broke that a three-judge panel has unanimously decided to allow Christopher Brandon Lee to change judges before the start of his murder trial.
Lee, 25, is accused of lying-in-wait and murder in the death of Erin Corwin, 19, whose body was found in the bottom of an abandoned gold mine in the California high desert in August of last year.
The judges decided that it was not clearly communicated that judge Rodney Cortez had been assigned the case for all matters, which would include the prelim heard last April and then the upcoming trial, and therefore the defense attorney’s request for a different judge was not made too late.
The district attorney’s office for San Bernardino County had filed argument with the higher court, declaring that defense’s request for another judge to hear the case was “not timely.” The DA’s office explained that in the Joshua Tree courthouse there are only two judges who hear criminal cases, and that Judge Cortez commonly gets the even-numbered cases and judge Bert Swift gets the odd-numbered cases.
But the appellate court looked at a list of recent case assignments and decided that numbering system was not true for every case, and so “from the schedule it appears that either judge may hear trials of cases with any number” and “thus, the schedule of assignments is insufficiently clear on the point.”
The appellate court decided that because the “for all matters” assignment was not clear enough, and precedent means “a challenge should be permitted at any time unless clearly prohibited by statute,” the appeals court sided with Lee’s defense attorney, David J. P. Kaloyanides.
Judge Cortez did not make any argument to the higher court. Though the case is next scheduled to be in his courtroom on July 27, it is expected to be transferred from Cortez to Swift.