Friday, March 26, 2004
Ninth Circuit Upholds Doctor’s Conviction in Murder-for-Hire Plot
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday affirmed the conviction of a former plastic surgeon and Pacific Palisades resident for helping in a failed plot to kill a La Jolla financier, rejecting the defense contention that the government was a day late in obtaining an indictment.
The statute of limitations in a conspiracy case starts running the day after the last overt act, Judge Johnnie Rawlinson wrote for the court. The panel, which also included Senior Judge John T. Noonan and Judge Richard C. Tallman, upheld Alfred Koonin’s conviction on multiple counts, including conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire involving foreign travel, extortion, and lying to a grand jury.
Koonin, 63 at the time of his June 2002 sentencing, was sentenced to 15 years in prison by U.S. District Judge Napoleon Jones of the Southern District of California. Koonin has consistently denied having supplied the gun used to shoot Sydney Kahn.
Kahn survived the February 1996 attack at his La Jolla office, although he was grazed by two bullets and hit by shattered glass. The gunman, Valter Nebiolo, pled guilty in 1997 and was sentenced to 12 years in prison on condition that he cooperate with the investigation into the shooting.
Nebiolo said he was hired to travel from South Africa to California and kill Kahn. The man who hired him, he said, was Ronald Abel, a Cape Town lawyer and businessman.
Kahn, who moved to San Diego County from South Africa, owed Abel a good deal of money as a result of a failed investment and had secured the debt with life insurance policies worth more than $400,000 naming Abel as the beneficiary.
Nebiolo said he agreed to the plot on condition that he receive a share of the insurance proceeds, as well as money, a car, a gun, and a place to stay. Abel, he said, told him that Koonin—a childhood friend of Abel’s—would provide those things once he got to Los Angeles.
Koonin, the gunman said, picked him up at Los Angeles International Airport just before the shooting and put him at a Westwood apartment.
Nebiolo said Koonin originally provided him with a .357 magnum. But after stalking Kahn for a short time, Nebiolo explained, he decided the gun was too big and too loud, so he came back to the apartment and asked for another gun.
It took Koonin about two hours to come back with the .25-caliber pistol used in the shooting, Nebiolo said.
Koonin has consistently denied the charges. He opted to testify before the grand jury and swore that although he was in contact with Abel about Nebiolo, he did not know the purpose of Nebiolo’s trip to the United States, never saw him with a gun and did not know he had one, and had no contact with the gunman between the day of his arrival and the time of his arrest five days later.
Prosecutors have sought the extradition of Abel, who posted bail in South Africa and has contended he should be tried there rather than here.
In rejecting Koonin’s limitations defense, Rawlinson explained that the case is subject to the five-year statute generally applicable to non-capital felonies. Koonin was indicted Feb. 23, 2001, the fifth anniversary of the attack on Kahn.
While the Ninth Circuit has not addressed the issue, the judge explained, other circuits have held that in a conspiracy case, the five-year period begins to run the day after, rather than the day of, the last overt act. Those rulings are consistent with Ninth Circuit precedent to the effect that the offense date is excluded from the calculation of the statute of limitations trigger date, Rawlinson said.
The case was argued before the Ninth Circuit by Los Angeles attorney Leo Branton Jr. for the defendant and Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Harrigan of the Southern District for the government.
The case is United States v. Koonin, 02-50350.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company