Jurors acquit accused killer

A Modesto woman who acknowledged being an accessory to murder, and stealing the car of an acquaintance only moments after that man was stabbed by her friend, was acquitted of murder and carjacking charges Tuesday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

The not-guilty verdicts mean Monica Arias, 22, will go home after more than 19 months in custody, rather than spend the rest of her life in prison. The outcome of the three-week trial stunned the victim's widow, who confronted a defense attorney in the hallway.

"You were paid with my tax money to free my husband's murderer," said a teary-eyed Linda Badal of Turlock, who predicted that Arias will be in trouble with the law again. "She will be the system's guest, again and again."

The district attorney's office gave the jury an all-or-nothing choice in the death of Joseph Badal, 48, who stumbled or was pushed out of his Toyota 4-Runner shortly after 8 p.m. on May 10, 2006, in the 2400 block of Parkdale Drive in Modesto.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Gerald Begen asked the jury to convict Arias under a felony murder rule that says certain dangerous crimes -- such as carjacking, robbery or arson -- amount to first-degree murder whether a defendant intended to kill a victim or not.

Begen said he was disappointed because he thinks Arias planned a carjacking that got out of control when her accomplice suddenly stabbed Badal to death but said he knew he had an uphill battle.

"On a felony murder rule case, it's always more difficult to convict the nonkiller, we know that," Begen said. "There's a basic element of fairness in the American psyche."

Defense attorney Robert Wildman argued that Arias was an accessory to murder who fled the scene in Badal's stolen car, not a coldblooded killer. Arias committed crimes, he said, but not the ones the district attorney's office charged.

"She's always been willing to be convicted of the crimes she committed," Wildman said.

Arias told the jury she had no idea that her friend, Ramon Guardado, would pull out a knife and kill Badal.

Jury hears taped statement

Guardado, 23, told authorities he acted on impulse because Badal took a swing at him after arguing with Arias, according to a videotaped statement that was played for the jury. He is being held without bail and is scheduled for trial in March.

Arias and Guardado did not know Badal. But Badal, who was separated from his wife, had a romantic interest in one of Arias' friends. That young woman told Badal that he could reach her through Arias.

Phone records show several calls between Arias and Badal, as well as Arias and Guardado, in the hour before Badal died.

Neighbors called 911 when they heard Badal's SUV roll forward and hit a tree. That was nine minutes after Arias placed her final call to Badal's cell phone. Investigators found Badal's body within minutes and arrested Arias at the wheel of Badal's car hours later.

The strongest evidence against Arias came from her boyfriend, a minor who helped her clean out Badal's car after the stabbing and told authorities that Arias planned to steal from Badal. Jurors also heard about contradictory statements that Arias made to detectives and a parole officer.

Arias, who took the witness stand and acknowledged a $200-a-day drug habit, said she was trying to help Badal find her friend, getting a ride to a relative's house in the process.

She said she fled the scene and lied to authorities because she was the only witness to a murder and afraid of Guardado. The jury was not convinced that Arias planned to carjack Badal, so Arias was acquitted of the carjacking and murder charges.

Arias was not released immediately, because she was on parole for robbery when she was arrested in connection with Badal's death. She will be released after a parole officer certifies that Arias served one year behind bars for violating the terms of her parole.

After the jury handed down its verdict, Judge Scott Steffen wished Arias well, offering some cautionary words in the process.

"Ms. Arias, good luck to you," he said. "Choose your friends wisely."

Arias nodded, saying only two words, "Thank you."

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.