Murder trial for Riverbank trio likely to start next week

rahumada@modbee.comAugust 12, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    Rosalio Ahumada
    Title: Courts reporter
    Coverage areas: Criminal cases, breaking news
    Bio: Rosalio Ahumada has been a reporter at The Bee for more than seven years, previously covering crime and public safety issues. He also has worked at the Merced Sun-Star, covering education.
    Recent stories written by Rosalio
    On Twitter: @ModBeeCourts
    E-mail: rahumada@modbee.com

— A judge said Monday that a trial likely will start next week for three defendants accused of murder during what police called a botched carjacking at a Riverbank convenience store three years ago.

Initially, the trial had been scheduled to start Aug. 5 for defendants Daniel Pantoja, Turlock Diaz and Jah-Kari Phyall. But the trial was delayed because Phyall's attorney was in the middle of a Merced County murder trial that ended last week.

The defendants are charged with murder and attempted carjacking in the death of Chaz Bettencourt, 21, of Riverbank. Bettencourt was gunned down "at close range" about 12:40 a.m. Aug. 5, 2010, outside the am-pm minimarket at Patterson and Oakdale roads.

Frank Carson, Phyall's attorney, asked the judge to have his client stand trial alone. He argued that Phyall made statements during questioning at the Stanislaus County Juvenile Hall that implicate his co-defendants.

Robert Winston, Pantoja's attorney, also asked the judge to have his client stand trial alone, arguing that Pantoja can't receive a fair trial with the two other defendants.

Defendants to be tried together

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen rejected the motions, saying the defendants will stand trial together. The judge told the attorneys he doesn't see how Phyall's statements implicating his co-defendants will be introduced to the jury.

"I don't see a huge danger at this point," he said.

Carson said the statements might become part of the trial if his client testifies. But Steffen said Phyall then would be subject to cross-examination, which would avoid legal issues that could derail the trial.

Portions of Phyall's statements could be used as part of an expert's testimony on the type of alcohol Pantoja and Diaz drank hours before the shooting.

Martin Baker, Diaz's attorney, told the judge a Kentucky university professor will testify about the effects of alcohol mixed with energy drinks on youths and their behavior.

Baker said in court that Pantoja and Diaz drank Four Loko, a mixture of alcohol and energy stimulants in a can that has since been banned by the Food and Drug Administration. He said the expert will tell the jury that the combination of alcohol and energy drink resulted in Diaz having no knowledge of what he was doing at the time of the shooting.

Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan argued that the expert can testify about how much the defendants drank that night and how long it took them to drink the Four Loko cans, but she can't rely on other details Phyall gave authorities. The prosecutor called Phyall's statements "self-serving."

Steffen told the attorneys he would make ruling on that evidentiary issue once he's had time to read Phyall's statements and research the issue further.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or (209) 578-2394. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeeCourts.

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