Final Arguments Underway in Murder Trial


Andrea Adelson | LB Indy

Murder victim Damon Nicholson
Murder victim Damon Nicholson

In their final arguments before a jury charged with determining if a Lake Forest man is responsible for the 2009 murder of Laguna Beach’s Damon Nicholson, the prosecutor and defense attorney conveyed dramatically divergent portraits of the accused in a Santa Ana court Wednesday.

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 used to bludgeon Nicholson and rob him of a computer, a cell phone and software.

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 maneuvers 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 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.

Though Stotler will shortly instruct jurors on what portions of criminal law they are to consider, Murphy also explained felony murder doctrine, which applies to a death that occurs during a robbery. “If you engage in conduct that is dangerous and someone dies, each person is legally responsible,” Murphy said.

“The defendant knows he’s taking someone with a weapon and then does nothing, that’s reckless indifference,” Murphy said.

Murphy appealed to jurors to put aside judging 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 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 he’ld give Dragna a break,” Murphy said.


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