There appears to be little dispute that Steven Zinda took an ax and inflicted four deadly chops into David Valdez's head in Rio Linda nearly two years ago.
Authorities say Zinda described the incident after Valdez's March 2011 slaying, right down to describing how he used the final blow the one to the back of Valdez's scalp as he lay bleeding in a muddy field where he had fallen to "finish him off."
But it will soon fall to a jury to decide whether what Zinda did that night was premeditated, deliberate murder or the rash act of a man who thought he was confronting a burglar in the middle of the night who had just ransacked his house.
Both theories were on display Thursday as Zinda's murder trial began in a third-floor courtroom at Sacramento Superior Court.
For the prosecution, the case is one of the victim simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Valdez, 20, had come to the Rio Linda neighborhood that night to party with some friends in a house not far from Zinda's.
He showed up with a half-gallon jug of Captain Morgan's rum and spent hours there that night playing cards and hanging out with friends, some he had known since elementary school, testimony on Thursday indicated.
When he decided to leave sometime around 3 a.m., Valdez went outside to find his Honda Passport SUV stuck in a mud-filled ditch.
Two friends offered to try to help drag that vehicle back onto the pavement, but decided they had to go back to a house and get a chain to help tow it out.
They left Valdez there promising to be back shortly to help, but never saw their friend alive again, Deputy District Attorney Sheri Greco told the jury in her opening statement.
The friends were delayed in returning to the scene because, when they arrived at the house to get the tow chain, one of them saw that his horses had gotten loose, and they spent 30 to 45 minutes rounding them up before returning to help Valdez.
As Valdez waited, Zinda returned to his home down the street from Valdez's vehicle to find his garage door open. Zinda, who had been out visiting a friend, went inside and heard noise. He saw his bedroom had been ransacked, and went outside, Greco said.
When Zinda saw Valdez standing outside down the street from his house, she said, Zinda decided he was involved in the burglary and confronted him.
"Mr. Zinda approaches him with ax in hand and says, 'What's the matter, buddy? Your friends leave you?'"
At that point, Valdez took off running, eventually covering a quarter mile before Zinda caught him.
"He is literally running for his life," Greco said.
In interviews with sheriff's detectives later, Greco said, Zinda made it clear that he was after Valdez.
"Mr. Zinda admits, 'Yeah, I was coming for him like 'Deliverance,' " she said.
Greco said Zinda hit Valdez three times in the face with the ax and began to walk off until he saw Valdez struggling to get back up. Zinda returned and gave him a fourth blow to the back of his scalp, she said, and later told detectives that he wanted to "finish him off."
Greco displayed autopsy photos showing the wounds to Valdez's head, as well as crime scene photographs of Valdez's body in the field, causing some in the courtroom audience to turn away holding tissues to their eyes and noses.
She noted that Valdez never posed a threat to Zinda, and that when he was asked whether there were any other weapons at the scene he replied, "Just my ax."
A photo of the ax, with a long wooden handle, also was shown to the jury.
But Zinda's defense attorney said Valdez's death came only after the two men struggled outside the home.
"At the end of the case, we're going to ask you to find Mr. Zinda guilty of a homicide, and the homicide will be voluntary manslaughter," defense attorney Tom Johnson told the jury.
Zinda, who lived in the home with his young son, was extremely upset when he discovered his bedroom ransacked. Zinda's son was not at the house at the time, but Zinda was concerned about the violation of their home.
"He's basically a middle class man raising a kid on his own," Johnson said. "This is all he had."
When Zinda saw Valdez outside, his initial thought that he was one of the burglars "was absolutely the right thing to think," Johnson said.
"Mr. Zinda was angry about what happened in his house, as any reasonable person would be," he said.
"From there, this spiraled quickly, and within moments Mr. Valdez was deceased," Johnson added.
But Johnson insisted his client acted out of momentary rage and is not a murderer.
"Did he feel horrible about it? Yes," Johnson said. "Is he a coldblooded murderer? Absolutely not."