Attorneys for the accused killer of tech executive Bob Lee say their client can’t get a fair trial in San Francisco because his former lawyer was influenced by one-time Mayor Willie Brown to change her tactics—an assertion she denies.
The allegations are part of a new Nov. 30 filing by Nima Momeni’s legal team seeking to have his trial moved out of the city. In the motion, Momeni’s lawyers put forth a wide variety of reasons why they contend that finding an impartial jury here is impossible.
Besides Brown’s alleged influence, the attorneys point to extensive media coverage that has focused on Momeni’s family and their private lives, as well as his roots in Iran. They also cited the fact that hundreds of thousands of people in the Bay Area work in tech and supposedly revered Lee, who is best known for his work developing the mobile money transfer platform Cash App.
But chief among the complaints are the legal team’s “troubling and worrisome” experiences with local lawyers who were initially involved in the case and an “apparent political nexus that appears to be a driving force in some very unusual situations.”
Momeni, who has been charged with murder, is alleged to have fatally stabbed 44-year-old Lee under the Bay Bridge on April 4 over a dispute involving Momeni’s sister, Khazar. From the start, the case has been characterized by bombastic rhetoric, big personalities and intense media coverage.
The latest filings by defense attorneys imply that Momeni’s initial attorney, Paula Canny, may have been influenced by Brown to change her legal strategy, and that another attorney briefly involved in the case, Douglas Horngrad, insulted the new defense team and urged them to strike a plea deal with prosecutors.
Both Canny and Horngrad denied the allegations. Brown, who was a former civil rights lawyer before he entered politics, did not respond to a request for comment.
“The family advised me that Mrs. Canny had met with former Mayor Willie Brown to discuss this case. After this meeting, the family indicated that Mrs. Canny’s perspective of the case shifted dramatically,” said the motion, which was filed by the legal team headed by Saam Zangeneh and Bradford Cohen.
Canny withdrew from representing Momeni in May and was replaced by Cohen and Zangeneh, who are based in Florida and do not regularly practice law in California. They are being assisted by Tony Brass, a San Francisco attorney.
The motion claimed that Canny undercut the new legal team on day one by not waiting for their representative to appear in court before a hearing ended. It also claimed that she handed over Khazar Momeni’s cellphone to police without a warrant, court order or a request from the district attorney.
Canny denied those allegations.
“If they want to vilify me, OK, because they know that I’m never going to comment beyond what I said about it not being true,” she said.
The motion argues that Horngrad, who frequently meets with Brown, insulted Cohen and Zangeneh and opined that Momeni should seek a plea deal.
Horngrad was introduced to Momeni’s family by Canny as a potential lawyer for Dr. Dino Elyassnia, Khazar Momeni’s husband, the filing said. After that introduction, Horngrad expressed interest in joining Momeni’s new legal team, even appearing at the group's first court hearing on June 13.
After Cohen and Zangeneh decided that Horngrad was not a good fit, according to the filing, he responded with “a series of angry, inflammatory, and accusatory emails. … The last one was so venomous that he accused me of ‘doing a first-class job of elevating a manslaughter to a murder.’ He then ended the email by calling me ‘an obvious prick.’”
“The email is threatening in nature, as it suggests that we should plead out the case to a manslaughter even though Mr. Horngrad had not reviewed the evidence or ever spoken to the client,” the attorneys said in their motion.
Horngrad did not reply specifically to the allegations in the motion but told The Standard, “I will address them in the proper forum.”
The motion’s other argument for why the trial should be moved listed the extensive local news coverage of the case, which detailed the lives of Nima Momeni and Lee and went far beyond simply informing the public.
The motion contends that such stories were “written to inflame the local public as to introduce non-admissible evidence to a local jury pool.” For instance, the motion claimed The Standard’s publication of photos of Nima Momeni in jail was “cataclysmic.” (Momeni’s attorneys were aware of the photos prior to publication, and refused to comment to The Standard about them. They did not request that they not be published.)
It also claimed that stories noting Momeni’s Iranian birthplace were prejudicial.
“The local media has used Nima’s Momeni’s and undersigned counsel’s ethnicity to create a negative sphere associated with the current Iranian regime,” the motion contended.
The filing expands on statements made by the legal team last week after a hearing in San Francisco Superior Court by Momeni’s lead attorneys, Zangeneh and Cohen.
Judge Loretta Giorgi set a trial date for March but is scheduled to make a ruling on the change of venue motion on Jan. 25.