The man accused of killing a teenager in a dispute over a Halloween jack-o'-lantern changed his story Monday at the start of his second murder trial, claiming he armed himself because he feared the youth was trying to break into his Buena Park home.
In a dramatic opening statement, Pete T. Solomona's new attorney admitted that his client perjured himself at his first trial when he described the shooting of 17-year-old Brandon Ketsdever.
Solomona told jurors in his first trial that he pulled out the .357 magnum in hopes of frightening the victim and his friends that night during a confrontation outside his home. But defense lawyer Milton Grimes said Monday that Solomona actually armed himself because he was afraid the teens were going to rob him.
"He was scared, but he had to do something because somebody was trying to get into his home and disrespect his family and his property," Grimes said. "This isn't about a plastic pumpkin; it's about a man's right to protect his home."
The new scenario was a surprise to the courtroom audience, which included family members of both the defendant and the victim. It also marks the latest twist in the case. Solomona was convicted of second-degree murder last year, but a judge threw out the conviction because of incorrect jury instructions.
Solomona continues to insist that that the shooting was accidental: The gun discharged when he whacked it against Ketsdever's car door. One of Ketsdever's friends was wounded.
In a vivid opening argument, Grimes dramatized his client's actions by producing a green plastic squirt gun, shouting, running and banging on the courtroom doors to simulate the noises his client heard at his front door. Solomona sat calmly, his wife Fui behind him in the gallery.
Prosecutors insist that the Oct. 18, 1999, killing was motivated by the theft of a Halloween display.
Standing before an almost 3-foot-tall plastic jack-o'-lantern with a black cat attached, Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Carolyn Carlisle-Raines told jurors that Ketsdever died "because of some cheap pieces of plastic."
Far from being scared, Solomona acted recklessly and aggressively in handling the powerful revolver, the prosecutor said. "He created the danger that he could blow somebody's brains out," she said.
Neither side denies that Ketsdever and two of his friends were out that evening playing pranks. But Solomona's lawyer said the youth's actions were more sinister than horseplay.
Grimes said the teens had slammed Solomona's front door security screen as they made off with the decorations. Referring to the youths as "a crew," Grimes said they had yelled epithets at neighborhood children and looked to some like gang members.
At the time of the pumpkin theft, Solomona was sitting in bed, watching "Monday Night Football." Disturbed by the banging at his front door, he yelled to his son several times and then pulled the revolver from a case beneath his night stand, Grimes said. He then went to investigate.
Carlisle-Raines, the prosecutor, has drawn a very different picture. Instead of nervously investigating the noise, she said, Solomona calmly went off in search of the youths who had pilfered the decorations.
With the teens' car trapped by traffic at the intersection in front of Solomona's home on Coral Bell Way, Carlisle-Raines said, Solomona strolled calmly to the intersection, pistol in hand. Once beside the car, he became irate, began yelling, demanded his pumpkin and pointed the pistol at Ketsdever, the driver, through the open window.
"He yelled, 'I'm not messing around, I'll blow your brains out,' or words to that effect," Carlisle-Raines said. "He then cocked back the hammer of the gun and after applying enough pressure to the trigger it went off."
Solomona's lawyer said nobody was more surprised than his client that the gun went off. "He stood there with the gun raised," said Grimes, pointing the squirt gun barrel to the ceiling. "He had a dead blank expression on his face, like he was in shock."
In addition to lying about key details in the shooting, Solomona also misled the original jury about when he picked up the gun, Grimes said. At his first trial, Solomona told jurors he retrieved his gun from his truck, after he tried searching for the teens. Now, he admits that he armed himself earlier, while still at home.
Solomona, who is out on bail, faces up to 15 years to life if convicted of second-degree murder. After the mistrial, Solomona fired his attorney and hired Grimes, a Newport Beach criminal lawyer whose clients have included Los Angeles police-beating victim Rodney G. King and former Compton Mayor Omar Bradley.
The mistrial angered members of Ketsdever's family. A new judge, Richard F. Toohey, is hearing the case, and family members say they hope the matter will soon be resolved.
"It's unbelievable that we're back here and have to do this again," father Jon Ketsdever said shortly before the trial began Monday. "It seems like this all happened a lifetime ago, and it also seems like it happened five minutes ago."