Steve Zinda rose from his chair in the cramped police interview room. He danced and cried and spit tobacco in a paper cup, and he told a detective how he'd just killed a man by chopping him four times in the head with an ax.
First, he had come home at 3 o'clock in the morning to an open garage door and burglarized house. Then he saw this guy on the corner under a streetlight, swigging from a half-gallon bottle of Captain Morgan rum. So he chased him 1,163 feet down the street and over a fence into an empty field. There, he belted him to the ground and was about to walk away when his bruised and bloodied target struggled to stand.
"You know, a person had to take it into their own hands," Steve Zinda told Sacramento County Sheriff's Detective Stan Swisher the morning of March 20, 2011, just a few hours after his savage ax attack left David Valdez, 20, dead in a muddy, grassy field in the Rio Linda darkness.
Prosecution and defense attorneys delivered their closing arguments in the Zinda murder trial in Sacramento Superior Court on Thursday. The jury then deliberated for about an hour and is scheduled to resume its discussions first thing Monday.
It's a case that Deputy District Attorney Sheri Greco says is a fairly obvious first-degree murder. Defense lawyer Tom Johnson claims the burglary of Zinda's house amounted to a provocation that makes it voluntary manslaughter.
In five days of testimony, perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence the jury saw was the videotape of Swisher's interview with the 31-year-old defendant. The footage shows Zinda as histrionic, without guile, and holding nothing back.
Zinda not only described the killing in precise and graphic detail, he even acted out the parts.
Playing himself, Zinda jogged in place as if loping down the street and into the field, bouncing the 30-inch ax handle on his left shoulder. Switching roles, Zinda laid down on the floor of the interview room, on his side, like the man he'd just clubbed with the ax. Then he switched back to himself, slamming elbows into the fallen Valdez as the gravely injured man tried to get up, pushing him back into the ground, before administering the death blow to the back of the skull.
The defendant's story leading up to the killing began the night before. It was pouring rain "stormin' Norman," he told Swisher. The day before, he'd just gotten a new tattoo that read "Zinda Rio Linda For Life." With the rain crashing down, he threw a CD of Brotha Lynch Hung's "Meat" into his truck stereo and danced alone in his garage, until three young people walked past. One of them asked for a smoke. He invited them inside, and everything was OK, Zinda said, until one of the visitors asked to use his bathroom. He took the guy inside his house in the 7200 block of Second Street in Rio Linda, but he said it didn't feel right. Zinda got the impression they were casing him out.
When they left, he pulled out a golf club and sat in his front room, waiting, "if anybody came back." He told Swisher in the interview room, "a lot of this" Valdez killing "is steaming from that" the mystery visit from the night before.
Next day, Zinda told Swisher he went to the Big Five in North Highlands looking to buy a shotgun. He checked out the $299 price and instead chose an $18.99 hatchet for his home-protection option. That night, he went to a buddy's house in Antelope to watch the UFC cage fights. When he came home at 3 o'clock Sunday morning to go to work, he found his garage door open.
Zinda stormed into the garage and as he entered his house two people ran out the front deputies later confirmed the burglary. He reached for the hatchet he had bought but discovered the crooks had stolen it. So he grabbed his golf club, ran outside and took a crack at the burglars' car as they drove off.
Weeping slightly, Zinda told Swisher his young son lives with him in the house, although the boy was off with his mother on her custody night. He also bemoaned bad experiences with neighborhood street gangs like the Rio Linda Pirus and another called the Boss Hogs.
"Everybody's always trying to come and take something from me," he said to the detective, choking back tears.
After running off the burglars, Zinda said he went into his house, grabbed his ax and went back outside. It was then that he looked up the block and saw the hapless Valdez drinking rum under the streetlight at Second Street and Tejon Way, his car stuck in a ditch.
Zinda said he didn't notice the car. All he saw was somebody he thought had broken into his house.
"What's the matter, buddy, your friends leave you?" Zinda said he told Valdez.
Zinda told the detective Valdez did not stick around to answer. He said Valdez ran up the street and he gave chase "I'm coming for you like 'Deliverance,' " he told Valdez before catching and killing him.
"Hey," he told Swisher in the video, "these people, those are no-good doers, dude." Valdez was "a no-good doer," he said, adding "I know these types of people. These are the types of people who will threaten my life."
Greco, the deputy district attorney, said Zinda's problem is that Valdez had nothing to do with the burglary, that he was just a guy who'd been drinking with his pals. And even if he was the burglar, which he wasn't, Greco said Zinda still would not have been justified to kill him.
"We all live in a civilized society," Greco told the jury. "We are all governed by laws, and a system of rules and laws, to ensure that society is civilized. What happened in this case is that the defendant, Mr. Zinda, disregarded all that. What he decided is that it was his law, because his home had been burglarized, and that he would take the law into his own hands."
What Greco saw as cold-blooded murder, defense attorney Johnson saw as a working man protecting his home, his son's home. There's a dangerous element out there, Johnson said, that permeates neighborhoods where people like Pirus and Boss Hogs and break-in artists have everybody on edge.
"And he's supposed to say, 'I think I'll go down to the substation and make a report?' What happens with that? Nothing," Johnson said.
"Protection sustains us," Johnson told the jury. "It keeps us going. Yet they want to wash all that away from Mr. Zinda? Doesn't he get to protect? Is it so unreasonable to do what he did? Is it so out of the ordinary and completely unpredictable?"