Laguna Beach police erred in continuing to question homicide suspect Matthew Dragna after he invoked his right to a lawyer, concluded an appeals court that overturned the first-degree murder conviction for a violation of procedure.
The court ordered a retrial of the Lake Forest man for the beating death in Laguna Beach of Damon Nicholson, a well-liked catering manager and gifted photographer.
Some of Nicholson’s 15 siblings, who all live out of state, attended every day of Dragna’s initial Superior Court trial in 2013. Friends and family described Nicholson, 41, as a thoughtful person with a knack for making every occasion memorable.
No court date has yet been set for a retrial, but police Capt. Jason Kravetz said prosecutor Matt Murphy confirmed this week he will retry the case.
Neither Murphy nor Dragna’s public defender, Frank Bittar, returned calls seeking comment.
It is unclear if the state attorney general will challenge the appeal court decision to a higher court. Rachele Huennekens, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general, said “we are reviewing the decision.”
A panel of three California Court of Appeal judges issued their opinion May 17 ordering a retrial of Dragna, now 26, who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder and robbery.
In appealing the conviction, Dragna’s attorney, Richard A. Levy of Torrance, argued that the trial court erred in not suppressing admissions his client made in a Santa Ana drug treatment center when police questioned him before his arrest. Dragna invoked his right to a lawyer there and later at the police station, but investigators continued to question him, the opinion says.
Levy also found fault with the trial proceeding as well, citing errors by Dragna’s counsel, the prosecutor and trial judge, but the opinion only focuses on whether Dragna’s statements were admissible.
In defending the verdict, deputies for the state’s attorney general offered no justification for investigators to have pursued their interrogation of Dragna, but argued the violation was harmless.
Associate Justice Richard M. Aronson disagreed and cited that the prosecutor described Dragna as “the star witness,” though he didn’t testify in court, because of admissions Dragna made to police that placed him at Nicholson’s apartment. “It is therefore impossible to say the statements did not contribute to the jury’s verdict,” Aronson wrote.
The opinion also cites Dragna’s conflicting statements, which cast blame for Nicholson’s murder on a friend, Jacob Quintanilla.
During the trial in December 2013, the prosecutor established that a third person introduced Dragna to Nicholson in his home for a sexual tryst and that Dragna returned a night later accompanied by Quintanilla.
Nicholson’s body was discovered in his open apartment by a co-worker, who was concerned when he failed to show up for work. Nicholson died from several blows to his skull with a baseball bat and police surmised from dust marks that property had been removed.
It was also revealed at trial that Dragna’s DNA was found on a trash can in Nicholson’s apartment and that police recovered Nicholson’s cell phone from a dumpster in a dense Lake Forest apartment complex where Dragna lived with his mother and two sisters.
Quintanilla was also a resident of the complex. He was also arrested in 2009, suspected as an accomplice in the murder. He is scheduled for a pre-trial hearing June 24.
While the ruling will force the prosecutor to reshape his trial strategy, Kravetz predicted that witnesses who were not called initially will be compelled to testify and help bolster the prosecution’s case.
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