Rey Soto recalled in detail Tuesday the events that led to the death of Kenneth Ike Thomas in January 2000, a story his one-time co-defendant's new lawyer told jurors to question.
While Soto is serving a 30-year sentence in Thomas' killing, a second trial opened Tuesday for Ronald Smith, the man he originally stood trial with on second-degree murder, first-degree assault and first-degree burglary charges.
The Alaska Court of Appeals two years ago overturned Smith's conviction because a witness was allowed to use hearsay in testimony. His new trial began with defense attorney Kirsten Swanson questioning Soto's truthfulness, and the veracity of others who were at the trailer on Village Street downtown when Thomas was fatally beaten.
"Listen carefully to his testimony," she said of Soto. "People at the trailer had a motive to cover up what happened that night."
Senior Alaska Attorney Richard Svobodny, prosecuting the case, told jurors in his opening statement that the evidence would show Thomas, 36, died because he was beaten with a baseball bat after he came to the aid of his brother, Alfred Torres, after Smith pointed a shotgun in his face at around 4 a.m. on Jan. 25, 2000.
Torres testified Tuesday that the assault changed his life. He can no longer lift heavy objects, and he can dislocate his shoulder when turning sharply while driving. Like his brother, he said, he "had blood gushing out of the back of my head."
Mark Paddock, who was in the trailer that morning watching "The Blair Witch Project," testified that Thomas' injuries were more severe. "A big part of his skull was caved in." Thomas died later at Bartlett Regional Hospital.
What Smith and Soto got from the crime, Svobodny said, was about $30 and six single-gram baggies of marijuana. When people commit a robbery where someone is killed, the law holds them responsible for the death, he added.
Soto, his first witness, came into court in an orange prison outfit. In the hours before the crime, he saw Smith at a home in the Thunder Mountain trailer park and said he wanted to get some marijuana, he said.
He described how after he saw Smith make a phone call, he rode off with him, with Smith driving off Mendenhall Loop Road and needing help from a police officer shortly before 4 a.m.
Soto said he had brought a bat and Smith stopped to visit a man on Willoughby Avenue near Village Street and picked up a shotgun. Before they went to the trailer where Thomas and Torres were staying, Smith gave him a ski mask to wear and told him what they would do, he testified.
When Torres opened the door Smith pointed the shotgun at him, and Torres grabbed the barrel and pointed it up, Soto said. "Another guy kind of came out," he continued. "I swung the baseball bat and the person fell to the ground."
He said he didn't know either Thomas or Torres before the incident. He also said he never went into the trailer, and Smith came out with a gray mug holding the marijuana and money.
Police officers later testified that Smith and Soto were stopped in the Mendenhall Valley after the crime was reported. A baseball bat, one gram baggie of marijuana and two ski masks were found. Swanson stressed in her questions that no shotgun was found.
Soto said the shotgun was returned. In cross examination Swanson asked about Soto's deal with state to testify. She asked why he presented different facts each of the three times he testified in court in the matter.
For example, Soto testified at his 2001 sentencing that Smith paid the man who lent him the shotgun. This time, there was no testimony to such payment, she said.
"It wasn't asked," Soto responded.
"If you don't testify today in a way that helps the prosecutor, you'll lose your deal," she said.
"Yes," Soto answered.
Svobodny questioned Soto further and brought out the fact that Smith and Soto originally were convicted together five years ago. Soto agreed with the prosecutor that he could get a new trial with the agreement reached in May.
Judge Larry Weeks told the jury to disregard the fact that there was a prior judgment in Smith's case.
Tony Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.