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Mistrial in Santa Rosa 'three-strikes' stabbing case

Published: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 7:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 7:16 p.m.

Charges against a Santa Rosa man facing life in prison for an alleged third stabbing in 15 years were dismissed Tuesday after prosecutors declared they could not proceed with his trial.

Leland Pinola, 40, was charged in an August attack near Prince Memorial Greenway in which he was accused of stabbing another man in the neck. He had previously served time in prison for a 2006 stabbing at Santa Rosa's Courthouse Square and a 1998 attack in Mendocino County.

But the latest allegations seemed to unravel on the first day of trial Monday when the key prosecution witness, the man injured in the attack, took the stand. Carlos Romero Lopez, 27, identified Pinola as his attacker under questioning from prosecutor Karina Kowler but could not remember details on cross-examination, said Pinola's attorney, Walter Rubenstein.

Lopez began contradicting himself and appeared drunk or under the influence of drugs after the lunch break, Rubenstein said.

"The testimony wasn't going very well," he said.

Rubenstein said the prosecutor noticed, too, and she interrupted the trial to talk to Judge Shelly Averill.

She asked for a mistrial and Averill granted it, discharging the jury. The judge formally dismissed the case Tuesday and cleared the way for Pinola's release from jail.

Because the trial had already begun, Pinola cannot be retried.

Rubenstein said Pinola maintained his innocence and rejected an earlier offer to settle the case for eight years in prison.

"If he had been convicted he would have gotten 25 years," Rubenstein said.

Assistant District Attorney Christine Cook said the trial was stopped because of "witness testimony and other evidentiary issues."

She confirmed Pinola will not be retried because there is no other evidence against him. "Trials can often unfold unexpectedly," Cook said.

Pinola was convicted in a 2006 attack in downtown Santa Rosa in which police said he stabbed another man in the neck. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

He also was convicted in a 1998 attack in Point Arena. Police said he forced his way into a house, stabbed a man and hit another man on the head with a rock.

In the most recent case, the victim received a cut in the front of the throat that required staples to close. A husband and wife who witnessed the attack were expected to testify, though it was unclear if they were able to identify the attacker.

Pinola was not going to take the stand.

Rubenstein said it was unclear why the key prosecution witness fell apart. He could have had a change of heart or feared being labeled a snitch for testifying against someone, he said.

He could not confirm if the man was impaired by drugs or alcohol. "Maybe he didn't feel good about his story," Rubenstein said. "Or maybe it was a street thing. You're not supposed to be telling on someone."

You can reach Staff WriterPaul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

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