The fate of a man who beat a neighborhood bully to death with a rusted pipe was in the hands of 12 jurors in Stanislaus County Superior Court Tuesday afternoon.
The panel must decide if John Charles Dominguez is guilty of murder or manslaughter, or innocent because he acted in self-defense.
First, jurors heard closing arguments from a prosecutor and defense attorney whose interpretations of events differed widely, though both agreed that Do-minguez cornered Richard Chavez on a lawn in west Modesto shortly after midnight on Feb. 16, 2006.
Defense attorney Robert Wildman argued that the fatal fight would not have happened if Chavez and a friend had not gone to 1830 Donald St., where Dominguez lived in a shed, then picked a fight while looking for a woman who was not there.
Chavez, 36, of Modesto, had stabbed another neighbor twice in the chest a month earlier, during an argument over $20. Although Dominguez, 36, did not know about the stabbing, he was alarmed enough by Chavez's threats to believe that Chavez would be back with reinforcements, his attorney said.
"When you've got somebody like that, do you take them seriously?" Wildman said.
Deputy District Attorney Wendell Emerson acknowledged Dominguez was provoked, but insisted that he did not need to use deadly force to escape harm because he could have called police and had enough time to cool off before he delivered a fatal blow to Chavez's head.
"He viciously swung, hard enough to split open Richard's head," Emerson said as he showed the jury a photo of a deep gouge the size of two quarters.
A crossbow and a pipe
According to the attorneys, the altercation that started shortly before midnight at Dominguez's home continued when Domin-guez and a buddy tracked down Chavez and his friend at 1916 Robertson Road, where Do-minguez was hit in the head with a crossbow.
Dominguez then picked up a pipe that Chavez tossed away and chased Chavez to 1225 Pine Tree Lane, where Chavez banged on the door. When no one answered, Chavez ran around the house, falling on the lawn beneath a window, perhaps because Dominguez was upon him.
A neighbor who watched from across the street told the court that Chavez was trying to cover his head with his hands as his attacker took aim. The neighbor said the attacker announced, "That's what you get for messin' with me," after he was done.
Dominguez told police he went home and went to bed. He told the jury that he climbed on his roof to watch for signs of trouble.
The stakes are high for Dominguez. A murder conviction would result in a sentence of 15 or 25 years to life in prison, and a manslaughter conviction could bring up to 11 years in prison and an involuntary manslaughter conviction would bring up to four years in prison.
A jury would have to conclude that Dominguez acted with premeditation or malice to convict him of murder, while the heat of passion or onset of a sudden quarrel could reduce the charge to manslaughter. If the jury thinks Dominguez acted in self-defense, he goes free.
Dominguez has been in custody, held in lieu of $1 million bail, since his arrest two days after the fight.
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2338.