SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Jury selection began last week in a murder trial linked to a 2019 hit-and-run outside of the Capitol Casino on North 16th Street. Court resumed Monday morning and, once a jury is sworn, trial will begin.
Lawyers for Deante Whitaker, charged with one count of open murder in the death George Kouklis, say they aren’t contesting the fact that Whitaker struck and killed the 60-year-old with his car, but haven’t directly specified which defense they’ll be using at trial.
Prosecutors say first responders arrived at the intersection of North 16th Street and McCormack Avenue the afternoon of August 24, 2019 and found Kouklis drifting in-and-out of consciousness in the number three lane. He later died at the UC Davis Medical Center after being taken off of life support.
A security guard for the Casino told police that he saw Kouklis, holding a white bag and a hammer, cross several lanes of traffic, causing Whitaker in his Dodge Charger to come to an abrupt stop before exchanging words with Kouklis.
“Fuck you, fuck you,” another witness said he heard Kouklis yell around the same time.
The security guard said Kouklis “may have” held up the hammer, but didn’t strike the car, and the charger pulled off onto Sproule Avenue. He looped back eastbound on McCormack Avenue just minutes later, hitting Kouklis and speeding off down North 16th Street.
Detectives began to eye Whitaker as a primary suspect in the killing after running a partial plate number provided by the security guard through several law enforcement databases including LEARN, as well as Sacramento Police Department observation devices and the Sacramento Parking Enforcement’s License Reader System.
Detective Dave Putman, who arrived at Whitaker’s listed probation address at the Bell Street Commons, found a black charger with a US Air Force sticker on the rear window with plates registered to an Asia Washington – Whitaker’s wife and the mother of his two children.
Prosecutors say Whitaker called the Rancho Cordova Police Department in September, claiming both of his license plates were stolen and that his lug nuts were loose. He also said he suspected someone tried to steal his rims. When an officer called Whitaker back, using a ruse that he needed to verify the VIN number of the car, he said it was parked at the Simply Better Tortilla Company in West Sacramento, where he worked.
The charger, parked on Enterprise Boulevard, had no plates, with damage to the bumper and hood. Detectives also made note of an air force sticker on the rear window – the same one Detective Putman saw at the Bell Street Commons.
Authorities impounded Whitaker’s car and began weighing how to place him under arrest. After seeing him circle around the business, looking at his car, CCAT officers pulled him over and his probation officer told detectives to arrest him on a flash incarceration after he refused to give up his phone.
A search of Whitaker’s apartment at the Bell Street Commons returned three five-spoke rims and tires for a Dodge vehicle, matching the one that killed Kouklis, and his old license plate in the trunk of a Honda Civic registered to him.
According to a motion filed late last month in preparation for the trial, Whitaker’s lawyer, Chet Templeton, wants to keep the jury from learning of Whitaker’s criminal history and two open cases he has for possessing drugs and a weapon inside the Sacramento County Jail.
He also wants to exclude any statements Whitaker gave to police because, he says, detectives gave him “defective” Miranda warnings after he invoked his right to a lawyer.
“The police ignored the fact that he had previously invoked his right to counsel. The police also give defective warnings, in that they never advise the defendant that he actually has a right to consult with an attorney,” Templeton wrote. “They merely tell him that he can have one present, whatever that means. All the defendant statements and purported statements to law enforcement should be excluded.”
Templeton wrote in court papers that he may call Whitaker to the stand, and said he believes some witnesses intended to be called by the prosecution have prior arrests and police contacts related to dishonesty and “crimes of moral turpitude” subject to impeachment under People v. Wheeler.