The scene in his Citrus Heights home in the early hours of July 22, 2010, was all too familiar to Curtis Lee Atkinson III. His father was drunk and belligerent and disturbing others.
Atkinson told him to keep the noise down and go to sleep, and he finally took the whiskey away. An altercation ensued and Atkinson wound up unintentionally choking his father to death while struggling to control him.
He insisted he acted in self-defense.
But Atkinson was found guilty by a Sacramento Superior Court jury of involuntary manslaughter in December that year and was sentenced to three years in prison.
He appealed, and this week a split three-justice panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal threw out the conviction, ruling that the trial judge should have allowed all the evidence Atkinson had wanted to present with respect to his father's years-long abuse of alcohol accompanied by violent behavior.
The excluded testimony would have come from Atkinson's mother and a cousin concerning six specific instances.
Trial judge Lawrence G. Brown pointed out that all six incidents occurred more than 10 years before the trial and were, under the evidence code, too remote in time.
Evidence that old starts to lose its probative value, plus it wasn't worth the time it would take, the judge decided.
The appellate court's two-justice majority concluded that keeping that evidence out was prejudicial to Atkinson because had it been presented it might have led to an acquittal.
Atkinson, 34, has completed his sentence and is back in Sacramento County, but he could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Evidence such as the testimony barred by Brown "has a material bearing on the degree and nature of (a defendant's) apprehension of danger," wrote Associate Justice Andrea Lynn Hoch, quoting California case law. Associate Justice William J. Murray Jr. joined Hoch to form the panel's majority.
Exclusion of the testimony at issue "may very easily have turned the scale in favor of the prosecution," Hoch and Murray concluded.
Acting Presiding Justice Harry E. Hull Jr. disagreed strongly with the majority's finding.
"The fact of family violence by the father and by the son was a given and well known to the jury from the evidence it heard," Hull pointed out in his dissent. "Apprising the jury of still more incidents of such violence by the father many years earlier would have made little difference to this jury given the issue (whether Atkinson acted in self-defense) it was asked to decide."
The jury knew that, according to the testimony of family members, "the victim had been known by his family up to the day he died as a 'Jekyll and Hyde' who would become 'your worst nightmare' and 'extremely, extremely violent' when he was drinking," Hull said.
He said he suspected the trial judge "was motivated by the same thought that motivates me and that is that the proffered evidence in fact added little, if anything, to what the jury already knew."
The justice noted that Atkinson himself was not a paragon of self-restraint, and referred to a confrontation between him and his father where he was the aggressor.
"Further," Hull wrote, "the mother of defendant's children testified that her relationship with defendant was marked by domestic violence, that it was 'a very tumultuous kind of tense relationship.' The defendant would occasionally choke her while picking her up off the ground. On the last occasion, he held her to the ground with his hands around her throat and 'was just squeezing very, very hard to the point where I thought (he) was going to crush my windpipe.'"
The Sacramento County District Attorney's Office has three choices.
It can ask the California Supreme Court to consider the matter, it can retry Atkinson even though he has served his time or it can do nothing.
"We are not prepared to make a decision until we have reviewed the opinion and discussed it internally," the office's spokeswoman, Shelly Orio, said Wednesday.