In 2011, Bulos (Paul) Zumot was convicted of the first-degree murder of his girlfriend Jennifer Schipsi, and of setting fire to their shared cottage in Palo Alto, California on October 15, 2009. Paul was arrested two days later, but not charged until July 22, 2010, about nine months later.
At trial, the prosecution claimed that Paul’s testimony was not to be believed. The National Center for audio and video forensics assisted with Paul’s appeal. In September 2020, a Federal judge overturned the conviction. A retrial is scheduled for November 2021.
Paul had an alibi – that he was at his café when the cottage was set on fire,
John Eckland, who rented the cottage to Paul and Jennifer and lived in another house on the property, passed the cottage at 6:25 and 6:35 and did not see Paul’s car at either time. Eckland testified that “everything looked fine” when he passed at 6:35 p.m.
Another witness passed the cottage at 6:25 on the way to Eckland’s house for dinner and testified that nothing was amiss. The shades in the cottage were drawn when both individuals passed. At 6:39 p.m., a witness called 911 after he observed smoke pouring out of the cottage. When no one answered the door at the cottage, the witness knocked on Eckland’s door. Firefighters found Jennifer’s body on the bed with a red melted gas container lying near her.
Thus, there is clear evidence that the fire was started sometime between 6:35 and 6:40pm. The cottage is 1.2 miles from café.
Café employee Ahmed Alaghabash, who was interviewed by police at the time of the murder, testified that Paul called before he arrived at the café, asking Jehad to make a tea and hookah for him. He testified that Paul arrived at the café sometime between 6:30 and 6:40 p.m., about ten minutes before the fire truck went by the café. Paul went outside when he heard the fire truck and then returned inside for his tea and hookah.
There was video evidence showing Paul entering the cafe at 6.47pm.
What was never pointed out to the jury, is that the video also showed Paul inside the café before he entered at 6.47pm.
After trial, the State conceded that the video surveillance showed Paul inside the café before 6:47:38, at both 6:45 and at 6:47:12.13, having argued at trial that Paul first entered the café later, on the basis of the video evidence, meaning he would have had time to start the fire at the cottage and drive to the café.
Thus the video actually contradicted the prosecution case, rather than supporting it, and supported the testimony of Paul and Ahmed Alaghabash, rather than contradicting it as the prosecution claimed!
The relationship between Paul and Jennifer,
The relationship between Paul and Jennifer was unstable. There were text messages in which Paul called Jennifer a “cancer” and told her that he needed to get her out of his life “at any price”, however in other texts, Paul told Jennifer that he loved her and begged for her forgiveness. Paul had pleaded guilty to making harassing phone calls ( including calls fabricated by Jennifer, see below ), and attended a DV class shortly before the fire started.
This history of conflict made Paul an obvious suspect.
The evening before the murder, they had fallen out and then made up ( in fact the prosecution theory at the preliminary was that Paul had strangled Jennifer on returning home, however it’s clear they made up, as there was a video on her phone showing them having sex early in the morning ).
What was crucial, to Paul’s credibility, and also to Jennifer’s credibility, were number-withheld threatening phone calls, which Paul denied making. After trial, Roy, a close friend of Jennifer, admitted that Jennifer had asked him to make these calls to portray Paul as abusive to police.
You might wonder why Jennifer’s credibility was an issue, given she was dead and could not testify. The answer is that all kinds of hearsay statements Jennifer had made were heard by the jury, even though she could not testify. Thus there was no way to know if the statements were made-up or true, no way in which she could be even asked if the statements were true, or cross-examined. Thus evidence that Jennifer was making false accusations to police about Paul is crucial.
There was also evidence that Jennifer was abusive as well as manipulative. On the day when she made up the threat call, Paul left her, went to the office and told her he no longer wanted to be with her. Jennifer went to the office, kicked and broke the door, and hit him with keys, gashing his face, and then called police. Paul did admit to verbal retaliation, and even spitting at Jennifer after he found her making out with her boss, but there was no independent evidence he was physically abusive.
The remaining witnesses
Susie Schlopp – was a totally non-credible witness for multiple reasons. Her testimony conflicted with both other evidence and her own testimony. For example:
Q. Okay. So you waited three months till you saw a
picture in the paper of somebody who had been arrested, and
then all of a sudden, you remembered you had this vivid
memory; is that right?
Q. Now, the — then why did you tell the officer if he
was — “If I told you he was driving a sports car that day,
then it must not be him”?
Q. So you’ve got a fraction of a second to see the
person as they’re driving very fast. Did you know the street?
Q Okay. And then three months later, you see a
picture in the paper and the light bulb goes off, it must be
the same person; is that correct?
According to the appeal ruling overturning the conviction “Scholpp had initially told police that she saw nothing unusual on the night of the fire, but said that she came forward three months later after recognizing Zumot’s picture in the newspaper. Cell phone evidence at 6:16 p.m., four minutes before Scholpp testified to seeing Zumot near the cottage, showed that he was four miles away from the cottage”.
Has to be one of the worst witnesses ever.
Rosie the dog
Rosie the dog – alerted, but scientific tests showed no trace of gasoline on Paul’s clothes.
Deputy Sheriff Joseph Martinez, Paul’s friend, was interviewed soon after the murder, then again much later on November 6. In this second interview, Joseph said that very early in the morning ( 5am to 7am ) Paul called him a second time, and made statements apparently inconsistent with what Paul told him the day before, and what Paul told police. Joseph claimed Paul said that he visited the cottage after the DV class. However when he testified as follows:
Q. Did that strike you as different from what he had told you the day before?
A. Later on, it did. At the time, I wasn’t really focused on that part of the conversation.
Given that Joseph “wasn’t really focused on that part of the conversation”, and didn’t notice any discrepancy with what Paul told him the day before even when interviewed by police, it’s likely he did not properly understand what Paul said to him. He also was quite vague about even the time of the call, suggesting his memory was not good several weeks later, when he first told police about the second call.
Paul did go back to the cottage but that was earlier in the day after he stopped at the police station to get the documents for another case. Apparently Joseph didn’t understand this was earlier in the day.
Expert testimony on mobile phones
There was also extensive mobile phone testimony that was totally discredited ( and I will say no more about this ).
An implausible case
Paul had no trace of gasoline on his clothing, making it very unlikely he could have set the fire. He also had no scratches or signs he was involved in a struggle, unlikely if he strangled Jennifer. The prosecution suggested his motive was that Jennifer was demanding money, however her threats were not credible, and her demands were based on a false claim Paul damaged her vehicle.
To summarise, Paul has a very strong alibi supported by both witness and video. The prosecution have no case at all, other than Paul being a suspect due to his unstable relationship with Jennifer, and a witness who likely misunderstood or mis-remembered what Paul said in an early morning phone call.