By Sam Stanton
A Rio Linda ax murder trial began in Sacramento Superior Court today with the prosecutor claiming defendant Steven Zinda chased down his victim and killed him in a muddy field with four chops to his head in a premeditated and deliberate slaying.
But Zinda's defense attorney claims the death of David Valdez in March 2011 was the product of a burglary Zinda interrupted at his home and came only after Zinda and Valdez struggled outside the home.
"At the end of the case, we're going to ask you to find Mr. Zinda guilty of a homicide, and the homicide will be voluntary manslaughter," defense attorney Tom Johnson told the jury this morning in a third floor courtroom at the courthouse downtown.
The case may come down to whether the jury believes Zinda's anger when he came home to find the burglary in progress at 3 a.m. was reasonable enough for the actions that he took after he found his house ransacked.
Authorities say Zinda came outside after discovering the burglary and saw Valdez standing down the street near his Honda Passport, which was stuck in the mud.
Zinda believed Valdez was involved in the burglary and confronted him with the ax. Valdez began running but Zinda eventually caught up to him in a muddy field, where a struggle ensued before Zinda delivered the ax blows, one of which penetrated the victim's skull and severed his brain.
Deputy District Attorney Sheri Greco told the jury in her opening statement this morning that Valdez, 20, had been attending a party in the neighborhood and was killed simply because he was standing beside his truck waiting for friends to return and help him pull it out of a ditch.
When Zinda saw him standing outside down the street from his house, she said, Zinda decided he was involved in the burglary and confronted him.
"Mr. Zinda approaches him with ax in hand and says, 'What's the matter, buddy? Your friends leave you?'"
At that point, Valdez took off running, eventually covering a quarter mile before Zinda caught him.
"He is literally running for his life," Greco said.
In interviews with sheriff's detectives later, Greco said, Zinda made it clear that he was after Valdez.
"Mr. Zinda admits, 'Yeah, I was coming for him like Deliverance,'" she said.
Greco said Zinda hit Valdez three times in the face with the ax and began to walk off until he saw Valdez struggling to get back up. Zinda returned and gave him a fourth blow to the back of his scalp, she said, and later told detectives that he wanted to "finish him off."
Valdez never posed a threat to Zinda, she added.
But Johnson painted an entirely different picture of events that rainy night, saying Zinda came home from visiting a friend around 3 a.m. and saw his garage door open.
Zinda, who lived in the home with his young son, was extremely upset when he discovered his bedroom ransacked. Zinda's son was not at the house at the time, but Zinda was concerned about the violation of their home.
"He's basically a middle class man raising a kid on his own," Johnson said. "This is all he had."
When Zinda saw Valdez outside, his initial thought that he was one of the burglars "was absolutely the right thing to think," Johnson said.
"Mr. Zinda was angry about what happened in his house, as any reasonable person would be," he said.
"From there, this spiraled quickly, and within moments Mr. Valdez was deceased," Johnson added.
But Johnson insisted his client acted out of momentary rage and is not a murderer.
"Did he feel horrible about it? Yes," Johnson said. "Is he a cold-blooded murderer? Absolutely not."
Photo caption: Steven A. Zinda listens to proceedings during a preliminary hearing in Sacramento Superior Court on Tuesday, October 25, 2011. Photo by Randall Benton / firstname.lastname@example.org