After deliberating less than six hours, a jury found Matthew Dragna of Lake Forest guilty of the 2009 bludgeoning death of Laguna Beach’s Damon Nicholson.
The jury’s verdict was announced in the Santa Ana’s Central Justice Center late Friday afternoon.
Earlier in the week, the opposing attorneys conveyed dramatically divergent portraits of the accused.
Prosecutor Matt Murphy described the now 23-year-old Matthew Dragna, charged with murder committed during a robbery, as the “gold-medal winner of liars” for a litany of contradictory statements he made to police after his arrest on Nov. 18, 2009, at a court-ordered drug rehab facility in Santa Ana.
“That man lied about virtually everything except maybe his name,” said Murphy, describing Dragna, then 19, as an unemployed high school drop-out with a drug problem, who lived with his single mother, two sisters and a nephew and solicited sex with older men in an online ad.
Last week, a witness testified taking Dragna to Nicholson’s Dolphin Way duplex for sex the night
before the attack on Oct. 23. Prosecutors contend Dragna returned the following night with a friend, who was armed with an aluminum baseball bat that was used to bludgeon Nicholson and rob him of a computer, a cell phone and software.
Nicholson, Hotel Laguna’s catering manager and a serious photographer at the time of his death, possessed a knack for nurturing relationships by making people feel special and anticipating their needs as well as a love for holiday merrymaking and tree decorating, according to some of his 15 siblings who devotedly attended the trial.
In contrast, public defender Frank Bittar portrayed Dragna as “not a saint,” but an unsophisticated, inarticulate teen, who lacked a motive to harm Nicholson and that his maneuvers were intended to deflect disbelieving investigators.
“He starts spinning, but he’s telling the truth about a lot of issues, but they don’t believe him,” said Bittar, who contends the prosecution’s case “stinks” due to a lack of evidence showing Dragna intended to rob and kill Nicholson.
Absent in Judge James Stotler’s court but seen in projected photos at the trial is Jacob Quintanilla, also of Lake Forest, who was also arrested and charged in the bludgeoning death of Nicholson shortly after Dragna was taken into custody. Bittar contends Quintanilla killed Nicholson and that Dragna was unaware of his friend’s intentions. Quintanilla is to be tried separately.
Though Stotler was to instruct jurors on what portions of criminal law they would consider in determining guilt or innocence, Murphy went ahead and explained the felony murder doctrine under which Dragna and Quintanilla were charged, which applies to a death that occurs under special circumstances, including robbery. “If you engage in conduct that is dangerous and someone dies, each person is legally responsible,” Murphy said.
Murphy appealed to jurors to put aside making judgements about the victim’s sexual practices, which he described as “kinky sex.” “Does it afford Damon less protection under the law? Of course not,” said Murphy, suggesting the graphic details – which were mostly provided by a witness for the prosecution — were part of a strategy by the defense attorney. “Maybe he’ld be lucky enough to get a juror who was so turned off by it they would give Dragna a break,” Murphy said.
That didn’t appear to happen.