Three defendants get two juries in homicide case

Separate panels granted in carjack, murder case

rahumada@modbee.comAugust 15, 2013 

— Two juries will hear testimony in a trial for three defendants accused of murder in the shooting of a man in a suspected botched carjacking at a Riverbank convenience store three years ago.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen decided that having two juries was the best way to ensure the trial will start soon and potentially prejudicial testimony won't prevent one of the defendants from receiving a fair trial.

Daniel Pantoja, Turlock Diaz and Jah-Kari Phyall are charged with murder and attempted carjacking in the death of 21-year-old Chaz Bettencourt of Riverbank. Diaz and Phyall were minors when the shooting occurred but are being prosecuted as adults.

Arguments on how to proceed focused on statements Phyall made while in custody.

Robert Winston, Pantoja's defense attorney, has argued Phyall's statements are prejudicial. Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan agrees, calling Phyall's statements self-serving and contrary to security camera footage of the shooting.

Martin Baker, Diaz's attorney, wants to introduce at trial Phyall's statements, which indicate 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.

Baker says an expert will testify that the Four Loko drinks could have resulted in "increased impulsivity" in Diaz on the night of the shooting.

Frank Carson, Phyall's attorney, argued that it's crucial to introduce his client's statements because they will give the jury a better understanding of what led to the confrontation with Bettencourt. Phyall's statements suggested he was pressured into participating that night by the two other defendants.

After hearing arguments for more than an hour Thursday morning, Steffen decided that using two juries will avoid any possible legal pitfalls. One jury will decide Pantoja's fate, while the other decides what happens to Phyall and Diaz.

Both juries will sit in the courtroom and listen to most of the testimony in the trial. One jury will sit in the jury box, while the other will sit in a few front rows where the courtroom audience sits.

When it comes time for testimony about Phyall's statements, Pantoja's jury will be asked to leave the courtroom. It's likely that jury won't be asked to report for duty that day.

Steffen said jury selection likely will take two weeks. Pantoja's jury will start the selection process Monday, and the other jury selection will start the following week.

The trial likely will start in the first week of September and is expected to last three or four weeks. The defendants remain in custody as they await their trial.

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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