Defense, D.A. present 2 views

Opening arguments begin in trial for murder of Kenneth Thomas

Posted: Tuesday, December 05, 2000

Attorneys in the murder trial of Ronald Smith, 34, and Joel Rey Soto, 21, today presented diametrically opposed explanations of what happened on Village Street in the early morning hours of Jan. 25.

Assistant District Attorney Sue McLean said in her opening arguments the defendants valued the life of Kenneth Thomas "so little that they took it for less than $30 and six grams of marijuana."

Thomas, 36, died at an Anchorage hospital of the beatings he received in the trailer he shared with his brother, Alfred Torres.

The prosecutor said Thomas died trying to protect Torres from two men, one armed with a bat and the other with a shotgun, who showed up in ski masks at the door of the trailer.

Thomas received a "skull fracture of such magnitude that he could not survive," McLean said.

In his opening remarks, Michael O'Brien, defending Soto, asked jurors not to be swayed by McLean's arguments, but to "wait for the case to unfold" and to reserve their decisions until they had heard all arguments and evidence over the next two weeks.

Darrell Gardner of Anchorage, representing Smith, characterized the events of Jan. 25 as "a tragic story of a dope deal gone bad."

Gardner said that although Smith "will not contest a large part of the evidence, and will admit he was there," he did not commit robbery. Smith and Soto went to the trailer where Thomas and Torres were living "to buy dope from dope dealers," according to Gardner.

"Mr. Torres attempted to sell (Smith) a gram of marijuana," Gardner said. "Mr. Smith rejected it as too small. Next thing he knows, Torres comes out with a baseball bat, but he was able to take it away and toss it. He (Smith) doesn't see what happens to the bat. He engages in a fist fight. He subdues Torres and leaves. ...

"Then Mr. Torres and his friends decided to come up with a story to blame Smith and Soto...."

McLean, the prosecutor, said a neighbor transported the injured Thomas and Torres to Bartlett Regional Hospital. She said Torres spotted what he thought was the getaway car, and ran with the neighbor into the police station (then downtown) to report its license plate number. When police later stopped that car on Egan Drive near Mendenhall Loop Road, they saw a bloody Louisville slugger and two ski masks on the seats, according to the prosecutor.

McLean told jurors that Dr. Abi Chidambaram of the state crime lab in Anchorage later analyzed DNA evidence from the suspects and from the beating scene. She found that blood on money in Soto's pants pocket came from Kenneth Thomas, "the only one person in quadrillions with that kind of DNA," McLean said.

Opening arguments followed Monday's seating of a jury of seven men and six women - with one of the 13 to be an alternate. During the selection process, Gardner asked the potential jurors to search their consciences for racial prejudice.

"There are not many black people in Juneau. If the mere fact that Mr. Smith is black will cause you to think he is more likely to be assaultive or aggressive (than a member of any other racial group)," the prospective juror should consider declining, Gardner said.

The lawyers used one peremptory challenge to reject a potential juror who had said earlier that he had ethnic prejudices.

The trial is taking place in the Juneau Superior Court of Judge Larry Weeks.

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