Nima Momeni, a 38-year-old IT consultant, will stand trial for the April 4 killing of Cash App founder Bob Lee, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Harry Dorfman ruled today.
The decision came after the second day of the preliminary hearing for Momeni, in which defense attorneys redoubled their efforts to cast doubt on surveillance footage and crime-scene evidence linking Momeni to the killing.
Dorfman was unsympathetic to those arguments on Tuesday, however, saying that Momeni would face a jury trial for the charge of murder. If convicted, he could face up to life in prison.
“I am satisfied that the crime charged, murder, did occur, and that you are responsible for it, and therefore I will hold you to answer at trial,” said Dorfman, speaking to Momeni in court. “The evidence, as I see it, is very strong.”
Lee, 43, was stabbed in the predawn hours of April 4, and was found bleeding from his wounds on Main Street, near Harrison Street, in Rincon Hill. Surveillance footage of that night — when both Lee and Momeni had been together — shows Momeni driving with Lee in his white BMW. Subsequent footage appears to show Momeni lunging at Lee before Lee walks away and begins to stagger toward a nearby apartment complex. Momeni appears to flee the scene in his car.
Saam Zangeneh, the Miami-based celebrity lawyer leading Momeni’s legal team, gave an hour-long closing argument pushing for manslaughter charges and raising questions about the police evidence.
“All the things that we presented to the court could only result in a sudden heat-of-passion quarrel, as opposed to something done with malice and evil intent,” argued Zangeneh, following a day of witness testimony. The attorney, who wore a who wore a flashy Louis Vuitton belt buckle and matching Louis Vuitton loafers, attempted to cast aspersions on Lee and pointed to his drug use that night, saying individuals “using drugs like cocaine for several days … they don’t act reasonable.”
At this point, Lee’s father, who was in town from Florida, pointed his finger repeatedly at Momeni.
The judge did not buy the defense’s arguments, either. “I’m not persuaded on the evidence presented to me” regarding voluntary manslaughter, Dorfman said.
After the judge’s decision, Momeni’s team of lawyers — including Bradford Cohen from Zangeneh’s firm, and California lawyers Tony Brass and Zoe Aron — were dismissive of the apparent loss, and suggested that it was highly unlikely to have a case dropped during a preliminary hearing, because the low burden of proof requires only showing probable cause. Trials require a higher standard, where attorneys must prove the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Momeni’s attorneys suggested that more evidence would come to light when the case eventually goes to trial.
“You guys don’t know our defense, because only an idiot would show you what cards they’re holding in a poker game,” Bradford Cohen said in the hallway outside the courtroom on Tuesday afternoon. “It’s not that this is a win or lose situation where we thought, ‘Oh my god, the case was gonna be thrown out.’”
They suggested that the defense team deliberately chose not present additional witnesses until the trial. Tony Brass said that witnesses like Momeni’s sister, Khazar, who may have been a critical figure in the dispute between Lee and Momeni, would most likely be called to testify — though she has refused to do so thus far.
‘Maybe he didn’t do it?’ defense asks
In a marked contrast to the strategy of Momeni’s previous attorney, Paula Canny — who focused on the possibility that Momeni acted in self-defense — the accused’s legal team took a different tack Tuesday: Casting doubt on whether Momeni committed the crime at all.
“Can you say specifically, definitively, that another person did not meet them there?” asked defense attorney Zangeneh, in a typical exchange Tuesday morning.
Zangeneh was questioning San Francisco Police Department Sgt. Brent Dittmer, the lead police investigator, on the possibility that another man joined Lee and Momeni at the site of Lee’s killing. Dittmer said he did not believe another man joined the pair, “based on the totality of the investigation.”
Prosecutor Omid Talai also rejected the doubts raised by the defense team during closing arguments, calling it “laughable” that Lee could have been stabbed by accident, or that another random person in the street could have committed the murder.
“Defense has presented and implied a lot of maybes and theories with no actual evidence to back it up,” Talai said. “Maybe the videos were hacked … maybe there was a homeless guy …maybe the knife was contaminated … what I’d like to do is go through the actual facts.”
Defense attorneys on Tuesday intimated that another man may have joined the pair without being captured on film. “If somebody was on the other side of the street, and walked over to where that BMW was, that wouldn’t be captured?” Zangeneh asked Dittmer. The witness did not deny the possibility.
The exchange was one of several lines of questioning meant to cast doubt on the possibility that Momeni was even involved in the killing.
But the prosecution had a thorough timeline of the crime Momeni is accused of, including video evidence showing the victim and alleged killer together at the scene of the killing, and witness testimony pointing to arguments between the two earlier in the night.
Far fewer people attended court Tuesday compared to Monday, the first day of the preliminary hearing. Lee’s family was present, sometimes shaking their heads when hearing details of Lee’s death. Momeni’s mother and another family member were also in the audience.
Momeni entered the room smiling, shaking hands with his lawyers, cheery and chipper despite the chain between his ankles and the handcuff attaching his wrist to his waist.
Zangeneh’s four-attorney team replaced Canny, Momeni’s previous counsel. Until she was replaced, Canny seemed to be preparing for a claim of self-defense.
Instead, Zangeneh spent Tuesday morning raising questions about the murder weapon, saying the 3.5-inch Joseph Joseph kitchen knife found on the scene was much more worn than the knives of the same brand belonging to Momeni’s sister. Prosecutors allege that Momeni took the knife from his sister’s condo to kill Lee, thus showing premeditation.
His colleague, Brass, questioned whether Lee fought back, asking the medical examiner in charge of Lee’s autopsy whether she found any defensive wounds on Lee’s body. She found scrapes, she said, but they could have been from a fall.
Aron questioned the DNA on the knife, asking a crime scene investigator whether Momeni’s DNA could have gotten on the knife at some time before the night of the killing. The investigator agreed it was possible.
But, by midday, the prosecution had rested its case. Defense attorneys called only one witness: Sgt. Dittmer, the police investigator who testified earlier.
Zangeneh again attempted to suggest that Lee and Momeni had an amicable relationship, and had been described in a witness interview as “bro-ing out” earlier that day.
Talai, during closing arguments, pointed to the DNA match linking Momeni to the handle of the knife, and Lee to the bloody blade of the knife. The knife was found near where Momeni’s BMW was seen parked on surveillance camera footage — the same spot where two men wearing similar colored clothing to Lee and Momeni stepped out of the car in the video.
“The last person seen with Bob Lee is the defendant; we see that on video,” Talai said. “We have facts, and not maybes, that … the knife … is found very close to where the car is parked, and where the blood drips begin.”