A jury deadlocked Friday in the murder trial of a Buena Park homeowner who shot and killed a 17-year-old neighbor as he tried to steal a plastic Halloween pumpkin from the man's front lawn.
After four days of sometimes tearful deliberations, frustrated jurors announced that they could not agree on a verdict in the case against Pete T. Solomona, 50, who has now been tried twice without a resolution.
Jurors said they split 9 to 3, with the majority favoring a guilty verdict. Jurors said they were hopelessly deadlocked, and Judge Richard F. Toohey declared a mistrial.
"We all agreed there was a crime. Nobody thought he should just walk away," said jury foreman Bill Kenney, 69, of Huntington Beach. "Not everybody agreed it was second-degree murder though. For them, the idea of malice aforethought was the biggest hang-up."
Jurors had the option of voting for voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, as well as acquittal, but could not reach agreement on that either.
Prosecutors allege that Solomona pointed his .357-magnum revolver at Brandon Ketsdever's head at point-blank range as the popular high school athlete and two friends sat in their car outside Solomona's home.
During the trial, Solomona insisted that the gun went off accidentally after he banged his arm against the door of Ketsdever's car.
Solomona was convicted of murder at a trial last year, but a judge threw that decision out, citing errors in jury instructions.
Kenney said many jurors left court Friday in great frustration. Some had broken down in tears during the final hours of deliberations, he said.
"The tears were for the fact that we had failed. Everyone was disappointed that we couldn't reach a verdict," he said. "It was emotionally draining. We hadn't slept for three or four days. People weren't sleeping because of this."
The mistrial brought anguish to the Solomona and Ketsdever families, who have kept a vigil in court throughout both trials. Ketsdever's mother, Jessie, broke down in tears as a mistrial was declared.
"It doesn't matter if it takes us two times or a hundred times, we'll keep coming back until justice is served," said his father, Jon.
Members of the Solomona family left the courthouse in somber procession. Solomona remains free on $250,000 bail.
"They're very disappointed that it's not over. This is a very hard case," said Marie Alex, defense co-counsel. "Everybody's disappointed that a verdict hasn't been reached."
A spokeswoman for the Orange County district attorney's office said it would determine next week whether to retry the case, which has attracted international attention.
"We have 12 people who thought that he was guilty of some sort of shooting, and that's encouraging to our office," said spokeswoman Tori Richards.
Solomona's second trial was most remarkable for the fact that he admitted to jurors that he lied while on the stand in his first trial.
Defense lawyer Milton Grimes, who was newly hired for the second trial, said Solomona initially concealed the fact that he armed himself early in the evening after he heard noises at his front door. Grimes said his client believed somebody was trying to break in.
Solomona withheld that fact during the first trial for fear he would look to jurors like a vigilante, Grimes said. The shooting, he said, was an accident, and no crime had been committed.
Some jurors were suspicious about the change in the story, Kenney said. "It seemed like a lot of people in the trial had left something out of the story," he said.
On Oct. 19, 1999, Brandon Ketsdever and two friends were out pulling pranks. One was to swipe an almost 3-foot plastic jack-o'-lantern from Solomona's lawn on Coral Bell Way.
The boys sped off, with Ketsdever at the wheel, but wound up in front of Solomona's house a second time moments later. It was there that Solomona confronted the boys, pistol in hand.
At the time of his death, Ketsdever was a popular high school athlete. Solomona, who has been described as a devoted family man, worked at a Pepsi plant.
The trial lasted roughly a week, and jurors returned regularly to the question of what sort of response was a reasonable one, Kenney said. Jurors found it increasingly difficult to agree on that issue as deliberations wore on.
"Another big sticking point was what would a reasonable person do," he said. "But by this afternoon, nobody was reasonable."