The accused killer of a cryptocurrency startup executive returns to San Francisco criminal court with a revamped legal team facing off against prosecutors who will try to persuade a judge to move the closely watched case to trial.
(Bloomberg) — The accused killer of a cryptocurrency startup executive returns to San Francisco criminal court with a revamped legal team facing off against prosecutors who will try to persuade a judge to move the closely watched case to trial.
Nima Momeni had pleaded not guilty to murdering Bob Lee after being charged with stabbing him on a dark downtown street in April. The preliminary hearing scheduled to begin Monday, and which could last for days, offers the first real peek at the legal strategies at play in a case that has drawn international attention because of Lee’s status in the world of high technology, and the gruesome and salacious details surrounding his death.
Momeni’s lawyers will likely use the hearing to size up the prosecution’s case, probe witnesses, challenge evidence, and possibly lay the groundwork for a deal down the road in which Momeni agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter, rather than try to have the murder charge thrown out, said Adam Gasner, a criminal defense lawyer in San Francisco, who’s not involved in the case.
Lee was the chief product officer at MobileCoin. He had previously created Cash App and helped develop Google’s Android operating system. His murder was first wrongly ascribed by some as further proof of San Francisco’s rising crime and urban decay.
But the two men knew each other and video evidence shows them both leaving the Millenium Tower apartment of Khazar Momeni, Nima’s sister, shortly before Lee was killed. Prosecutors say a kitchen knife with Lee’s blood on it, found near the victim, also had DNA evidence on the handle that was traced to Nima Momeni. The knife, they say, came from Khazar Momeni’s apartment.
“Recovering that knife was probably a key piece of evidence that linked the defendant as a suspect in this crime,” Gasner said. “It’s certainly evidence the defense is going to have to contest.”
Momeni’s defense team could but isn’t likely to call witnesses, legal experts said. How much they can learn about, and challenge, the prosecution’s case depends on what the District Attorney’s office does. Prosecutors could present only the evidence they believe will persuade the judge that there is probable cause to take the case to trial — a low bar.
But they could go bigger by calling witnesses including police officers and detectives. They could also call officials from the medical examiner’s office, which attributed the killing to three stab wounds, one of which was “almost half a foot deep into the body and chest of Bob Lee,” Assistant District Attorney Omid Talai said at a previous hearing. The office also concluded Lee had cocaine, ketamine and alcohol in his body when he died.
Read more: Bob Lee’s Accused Killer, His Lawyer Part Ways Over Strategy
Prosecutors allege a conflict between Lee and Nima Momeni erupted after a party Lee and Khazar Momeni attended the afternoon of the stabbing. After the party Momeni questioned Lee about whether his sister Khazar “was doing drugs or anything inappropriate,” according to prosecutors. Khazar Momeni is married to a prominent San Francisco plastic surgeon, Dino Elyassnia.
Besides getting the case to trial, Talai’s objective may also be to put witnesses on a “test drive,” to see how they hold up under questioning from Momeni’s lawyers, said criminal defense attorney Chris Morales, who is also not involved in the case.
It’s possible but unlikely that the District Attorney’s office might call primary witnesses who were at the party, Morales said. “I’m not sure he needs to expose his witnesses to all the stress” he said, referring to the crush of television cameras and reporters that has accompanied even the most cursory hearings in the case.
Momeni’s case had been put on hold after tension and differences he had with his previous lawyer reached a breaking point. Monday’s hearing will also put on display Momeni’s new legal team drawn from across the US. His lead lawyer is Saam Zangeneh, a criminal defense attorney based in Miami. He is joined by Bradford Cohen, also from Florida, Los Angeles-based lawyer Zoe Aron, and local attorney Anthony Brass.
Zangeneh and Randy Quezada, a spokesman for San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, both declined to comment.
The case is People of California v. Momeni, CRI-23005500, California Superior Court in the County of San Francisco.
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.