The jury spoke, and the shackled Steven Andrew Zinda walked out of a Sacramento courtroom Tuesday as a certified ax murderer, if only in the second degree.
It was a decision that pleased neither the prosecution nor the defense. Deputy District Attorney Sheri Greco had requested a first-degree murder conviction, while defense attorney Tom Johnson sought a voluntary manslaughter decision.
But jury foreman Ron Johnson said the outcome was not meant to be a compromise.
"Not really," Johnson said, of the verdict reached after less than 10 hours of deliberations over three days. "We discussed it and we looked at the letter of the law and that was where we had our, not differences, but we had to get a better clarification. So we asked (Sacramento Superior Court Judge Marjorie Koller), and she clarified it from there."
Zinda, 31, hacked David Valdez to death on the mistaken belief that the 20-year-old victim had broken into his Rio Linda home. When Zinda saw Valdez standing on a street corner near his Second Street residence at 3 a.m. March 20, 2011, drinking from a half-gallon bottle of rum, he grabbed an ax and ran Valdez 1,163 feet down the block, past Tejon Way and over a fence into a field. It was there that Zinda killed Valdez with four chops to the face and head.
Greco, in her closing argument, told the jury she thought the killing was "a first-degree murder, clear as day, and nothing less."
Her chief exhibit was the videotaped statement Zinda gave to Sacramento sheriff's Detective Stan Swisher. On the tape, the killer told of chasing Valdez after discovering the burglary, running him into a field and whacking him to the ground with his ax. Then, when Zinda turned to leave but saw Valdez try to get up, "I walked back there and finished him off," he told Swisher.
In an emailed statement after the verdict, Greco said: "It is important to keep in mind that the victim in this case was a 20-year-old young man who had done absolutely nothing to provoke this incident. We agree with the jury that Mr. Zinda committed a murder, but it is our belief the evidence of premeditation and deliberation strongly supported a first-degree finding."
Johnson, the defense attorney, described his client in his closing argument as a working man who held down three jobs and had grown frustrated with the threats posed by street gangs in his neighborhood. The lawyer strongly suggested Zinda was provoked into the killing and that Valdez had something to do with the break-in, even though Greco insisted the victim was only waiting for somebody to help him pull his car out of a ditch across from Zinda's house when he was stalked and slain.
"We're relieved it wasn't a first," Johnson said, of the jury's finding on the degree of the murder. "We would have hoped the argument of provocation would have resonated more, which would have given us a voluntary (manslaughter). But it was difficult to prove the provocation was by Mr. Valdez."
A 66-year-old retired commercial photographer, jury foreman Johnson declined to discuss the reasoning behind the panel's verdict. He said that as foreman, he went around the room to let everybody voice an opinion, "and we discussed the opinions based on the law and what we knew of the situation, and I think we all came to an intelligent decision."
As for Zinda's admission to the detective, including his motivation and the added time element of the chase, Ron Johnson said, "Having never seen anything like that before, it was interesting." He said he had "no way of judging what it was going to be like," in terms of helping the jury make its decision.
Judge Koller scheduled Zinda's sentencing for Jan. 11. He is facing 15 years to life in prison for the second-degree murder conviction, plus another year for use of the deadly weapon. A first-degree conviction would have qualified him for 25 years to life.
Whether it was murder in the first or second degree, and whether Zinda gets 15 or 25 years to life in prison, "That's not making my son come back," Maria Nunez Valdez said, after the verdict. "That means nothing for me."
She described her son as "quiet," a Rio Linda High School graduate who hoped to begin an electronics career and whose family received word after his death that he had been accepted into a training program.
"His plan is like, 'Mom, you're a single parent, you're a mother and father for me and my sister,' " Maria Valdez said. "His plan is working hard and buy me a house. He is a good person, a loved person. He can help anybody."
Valdez said her son wasn't a fighter. Even if he had been drinking on the day of his death, "that doesn't mean he's going to do anything to anybody. He's going to do nothing to Mr. Zinda. Even Steve (Zinda) told us that."