Guilty on all counts: Jury brings in verdict in Smith-Soto murder trial

Posted: Friday, December 15, 2000

Accused killers Ronald Smith and Rey Joel Soto were convicted of murder, assault and robbery charges today in Juneau Superior Court.

The jury brought in its verdict of guilty on all counts shortly after 1 p.m. today.

Smith, 34, and Soto, 21, were tried on felony charges of second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and first-degree assault stemming from a Jan. 25 incident on Village Street in downtown Juneau. The attack left Kenneth Thomas, 36, dying of a depressed head fracture and Alfred Torres severely injured. Thomas died the following day after being medevaced to the Alaska Native Hospital in Anchorage.

Sentencing has been set for Feb. 15, said Superior Court Judge Larry Weeks. In the meantime, Weeks said, the department of probation will draft a pre-sentencing report and make recommendations.

"It was a long trial and it was emotional for everyone," Weeks said this afternoon.

The trial began Dec. 4 with the seating of a jury of seven men and six women. The case went to the jury at 1 p.m. Thursday after closing arguments.

The prosecution sought to establish that Thomas was beaten during a robbery near and/or in his trailer home on Village Street. By their own admission, Smith and Soto were at the scene. Assistant District Attorney Sue McLean argued that evidence found in their car when they were arrested linked them to the fatal attack. Bolstered by the testimony of many police officers, she also attempted to link DNA evidence and a shotgun to the crime.

Defense attorneys Darrel Gardner and Michael O'Brien argued that there was no robbery, that the incident was a simple marijuana deal that spun out of control.

Smith had $10 in his pocket the morning he was arrested while driving a borrowed car. He testified that because he worked two jobs, he had no reason to commit robbery. He testified he was trying to buy marijuana when he was attacked by Torres, whom he said had a baseball bat.

Testimony indicated Soto had Thomas' blood on his jeans. He admitted during his testimony he hit someone with a wooden bat.

"The guy fell down. I saw him try to lift himself back up. I was scared," Soto testified Dec. 8. He said he never touched Alfred Torres.

Both Smith and Soto said they had never worn the ski masks found with a bloody baseball bat in the back of their car.

Before deliberations began, Judge Weeks reminded jurors "the matter of punishment must not affect your decision in any way."

In her closing argument, prosecutor McLean reminded the jury of testimony from Mark Paddock and Stephanie Sanders, who said they were watching a video with Thomas and Torres just before the assault. They testified a silver shotgun with pistol grips had been used in the crime. A silver gun was recovered by police, and although it had been wiped clean, it seemed too big a coincidence that two witnesses would describe the same weapon, McLean said.

Public defender Darrel Gardner contended his client, Smith, was never inside the trailer, and that it was not a robbery because $242 was left in Thomas' wallet.

"The state has not proven its case," Gardner said.

Representing Soto, attorney Michael O'Brien referred to the case as "a bloody mess." He suggested Torres had a sexual relationship with Sanders, who was 15 or 16 in January, and that Torres was a drug dealer. For those reasons, Torres had reason to lie, O'Brien said.

"These guys (the defendants) are not robbers and they were not armed," O'Brien said.

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