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October 17, 2013

Defense attorney challenges credibility of 'star witness' in Riverbank murder trial

A defense attorney on Thursday told a jury that the prosecution’s “star witness” embellished his account of a fatal shooting during a botched carjacking outside a Riverbank convenience store.

A defense attorney on Thursday told a jury that the prosecution’s “star witness” embellished his account of a fatal shooting during a botched carjacking outside a Riverbank convenience store.

Jah-Kari Phyall, Turlock Diaz and Daniel Pantoja are on trial charged with murder and attempted carjacking in Chaz Bettencourt’s death. Testimony in the trial has indicated that Bettencourt and friend David Gomez were walking out of the convenience store when Diaz pointed a gun at Gomez’s head and demanded his car keys.

Frank Carson, Phyall’s attorney, challenged the credibility of Gomez’s testimony in his closing argument Thursday morning. He said Gomez in a June 2011 preliminary hearing identified Pantoja as the gunman, but in the trial he testified that Diaz had the gun.

The defense told the jury that Gomez wants to avenge his friend’s death by embellishing his story and ensuring all three defendants are convicted of murder. He reminded the jurors that Gomez testified that his memory was better now, three years after the shooting.

“That just defies logic,” Carson argued. “He has a story to tell.”

Gomez said in court that he made a mistake in his testimony because he was intimidated after seeing the defendants in the courtroom for the first time since the shooting. He said he corrected his testimony during the preliminary hearing.

Bettencourt, 21, was shot about 12:40 a.m. Aug. 5, 2010, outside the AM-PM minimarket at Patterson and Oakdale roads in Riverbank.

Gomez testified that Phyall tried to stop him from escaping into the convenience store, and that Phyall suggested he had a gun by reaching into his pocket to mimic having a firearm inside.

Phyall testified that he didn’t have a gun and didn’t make that suggestion. Carson argued that the store’s security camera footage doesn’t show Phyall reaching into his pocket.

The prosecution claims the defendants’ actions that night were for the benefit of the Norteño street gang. Gang enhancements have been added to the defendants’ charges, which could lengthen a prison sentence if convicted.

A defense expert on gangs testified that this crime has nothing to do with gangs, and Carson argued that this case is the result of “dumb, young, drunk” individuals doing stupid things.

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

Carson told the jurors that the prosecution wants the gang enhancements to tie all three defendants to Bettencourt’s death.

“They want this to be a gang case, but it isn’t,” Carson argued. “That’s what is going on here, they’re trying to force a round peg into a square hole.”

He drew the jury’s attention to a news release issued when Diaz and Pantoja were found and arrested in Redding. Carson told the jury that the news release states that the Riverbank shooting wasn’t gang-related, but the suspects were gang associates.

Born into the gang lifestyle

During his closing argument Wednesday, Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan said Diaz was born into the Norteño gang lifestyle, with his family dressing him completely in red clothing for a family portrait when he was 2 years old. The prosecutor has claimed that Diaz and Pantoja are Norteños, and that Phyall is a gang associate who knowingly hung out with Norteños.

Brennan argued that committing robberies is a major part of Norteño criminal gang activity, and that the shooting was a result of that. Phyall testified that Pantoja robbed an ice cream vendor at gunpoint and later suggested they rob two elderly women before Bettencourt and Gomez were accosted.

“This was an ongoing reign of terror that night,” Brennan said about the defendants.

Phyall testified that he’s not a gang associate and that he met Diaz while playing basketball at a neighborhood park a few months before the shooting. He said he ran into Diaz and Pantoja at a Turlock bus stop, and he agreed to go with them to a party in Riverbank.

Carson told the jury that the prosecution’s allegations of gang involvement are “choreographed staged baloney. You need to see through it, ladies and gentlemen.”

Martin Baker, Diaz’s attorney, started his closing argument Thursday afternoon. He told the jurors there’s no disputing that his client shot and killed Bettencourt, but that there are mitigating factors they should consider.

“There is reasonable doubt this killing amounts to first-degree murder,” Baker argued.

He told the jurors to consider Diaz’s age and immaturity at the time of the shooting. He said his client’s level of intoxication that night also should be a mitigating factor.

Diaz and Pantoja on the night of the shooting drank Four Loko, which was then a mixture of alcohol and energy stimulants in a can. A psychopharmacology expert testified that the caffeine and alcohol mixture the defendants drank was the equivalent of 14 cans of Budweiser and three cups of Starbucks coffee for each.

Baker said the jurors should view Diaz as the 14-year-old boy he was in 2010, not the 18-year-old man he is now. The psychopharmacology expert testified that the teenage brain is not fully developed, which makes it difficult to make rational decisions.

“So, don’t think this is a foregone conclusion,” Baker told the jury. “It’s entirely up to you.”

Two juries are participating in this trial. The jury deciding the fate of Diaz and Phyall will return to court Wednesday, when Baker will continue his closing argument.

A jury that will decide Pantoja’s fate will return to court Monday, when those closing arguments begin. The judge hopes both juries will begin deliberating by the end of next week.

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