Expert: Riverbank murder defendant could have been hospitalized for alcoholic energy drinks

10/08/2013 6:16 PM

10/08/2013 11:01 PM

A defense expert on Tuesday testified that a teenage defendant could have been hospitalized for the amount of alcoholic energy drinks he consumed before a deadly encounter at a Riverbank convenience store.

Cecile Marczinski, an expert in psychopharmacology, said drinking three 23.5-ounce cans of Four Loko that had 12 percent alcohol mixed with energy stimulants could have resulted in typical intoxication symptoms such as slurred speech, double-vision and some vomiting.

A prosecutor has argued that defendant Turlock Diaz didn’t exhibit those symptoms, but instead held a gun to a man’s head and demanded his car keys before shooting the man’s friend, Chaz Bettencourt, twice in the chest.

Diaz, Daniel Pantoja and Jah-Kari Phyall are on trial charged with murder and attempted carjacking in Bettencourt’s death. Bettencourt, 21, was shot about 12:40a.m. Aug.5, 2010, outside the AM-PM minimarket at Patterson and Oakdale roads in Riverbank.

Diaz and Phyall were minors when the shooting occurred but are being prosecuted as adults. Diaz was 14, Phyall was 15 and Pantoja was 18.

Drinking three cans of Four Loko within a few hours in August 2010 could have resulted in serious intoxication, but Marczinski says the energy stimulants in the drinks helped the consumers maintain their balance and masked other intoxication symptoms. She said emergency room physicians have called it being “wide-awake drunk” after observing patients who have been drinking alcoholic energy drinks.

The makers of Four Loko since have removed the energy stimulants from their drinks.

Marczinski testified that someone who has drunk three cans of Four Loko alcoholic energy drink probably would be on a “hospital gurney” after drinking so much. She has said the three cans are the equivalent of about 14 cans of Budweiser and three cups of Starbucks coffee.

But Marczinski said a person’s tolerance for alcohol can be a factor in the resulting level of intoxication. She told the jury that the amount of Four Loko cans Diaz drank before the shooting is solely based on statements Phyall made to authorities while in custody.

Investigators found an empty can of Four Loko believed to have been consumed by Diaz and Pantoja before it was tossed at a nearby school. An analysis found traces of Diaz’s and Pantoja’s DNA on the can. Previous testimony has indicated that Diaz and Pantoja each drank half of the can.

During cross-examination, Marczinski said it’s possible Diaz took a sip from that last can before Pantoja drank the rest of it, reducing the total amount of Four Loko drunk by Diaz that night. Phyall didn’t drink Four Loko, but all three defendants smoked marijuana throughout the evening , according to Marczinski.

Security camera footage shows three people waiting in the parking lot for Bettencourt and friend David Gomez to walk out of the convenience store. Gomez has testified that he and Bettencourt were walking out of the store when Diaz came up behind him and held the gun to his head.

Gomez also told the jurors that he backed away from Diaz, who kept the gun pointed at his face. When Gomez got into the view of the store’s security camera, Diaz stopped following. Gomez said he made a dash for the store’s front door, and that Phyall tried to stop him before he escaped into the store.

Moments later, Gomez said, he heard shots coming from the parking lot. Gomez testified that he found Bettencourt injured on the ground and the defendants gone.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Scott Steffen has said it’s possible that testimony in the trial could conclude later this week.

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