in park death
by Seth Hemmelgarn
A man who had been accused of intentionally choking to death another man in San Francisco's Buena Vista Park in 2011 was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter this week, but jurors acquitted David Munoz Diaz of the more serious second-degree murder.
In addition to the manslaughter conviction, Diaz, 25, was also found guilty of arson, mutilating human remains, and destroying evidence in the death of Freddy Canul-Arguello, 23, whose charred, mostly naked body was found in the park near a melted recycling bin just before 5 a.m. June 10, 2011.
After the jurors announced their verdict in San Francisco Superior Court Tuesday, August 26, some indicated that they had deliberated most on whether to convict Diaz of second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. They also could have convicted him of first-degree murder. The 10 men and two women had deliberated for more than five days over one week after listening to three weeks of testimony.
Diaz, who wore a blue shirt and a dark suit and tie Tuesday, sat up straight throughout the reading of the verdicts and looked grim.
Outside the courtroom, juror Prudence Hull, 63, said, "We felt that involuntary manslaughter is in fact part of the murder charge," but the evidence wasn't enough to support a conviction on first- or second-degree murder.
Hull said jurors "ruled out fairly quickly" that there was premeditation on Diaz's part in the killing of Canul-Arguello.
"I don't think he walked into the park that evening intending to kill this person," Hull said. She added, "You never can see into the heart of another person. We had to just look at the evidence."
Much of the court testimony had been focused on fractures to cartilage in Canul-Arguello's neck, and Hull said jurors felt "a lot of force" had been used to kill him.
She said she and other jurors spent "a good bit of time" deciding between second-degree murder, for which there was "a strong case," and involuntary manslaughter. She said there was "enough reasonable doubt that we did not all agree" on convicting Diaz of second-degree murder.
During the trial, Diaz, who's been in custody since his arrest in July 2011, testified through a Spanish interpreter that he and Canul-Arguello had met up in the Castro just hours before the death, decided to have sex, and walked to the park.
They performed oral sex and other acts on each other, and Canul-Arguello asked to be choked, Diaz said. He said he eventually agreed, then noticed at some point that Canul-Arguello had stopped moving. He unsuccessfully tried to revive him, he said.
"I was frightened," Diaz testified. "... I didn't know what to do. I was really nervous."
He said he moved a recycling bin close to Canul-Arguello's body and lit a fire in it to signal for help.
Assistant District Attorney Danielle Douglas said in her closing arguments last week that Diaz killed Canul-Arguello after he "did something that caused the defendant to go into a rage."
Juror Jose De Los Reyes, 39, said Tuesday there had been "such a gray area about what happened in the park."
However, juror Dominique Leone, 40, said Diaz "is on record as lying" in 911 calls he made and in interviews with police. That "obviously doesn't help his credibility."
Bill Morrow, 44, said jurors settled on involuntary manslaughter because there was enough evidence that Diaz had been "reckless" and had known what he was doing was "dangerous," but they hadn't seen enough to agree he'd been "consciously disregarding human life."
Court testimony indicated that the recycling bin had been on top of Canul-Arguello when his body was found. Fire expert Jeff Campbell had testified about various scenarios including the bin being placed on top of Canul-Arguello, but he said the body hadn't been placed inside the container.
De Los Reyes said there had been "enough evidence" to show that the receptacle had been "inappropriately set on fire," and that Diaz clearly intended "to mutilate the body and destroy the evidence." All four jurors who spoke to the Bay Area Reporter are straight.
After the verdicts were announced Tuesday, Deputy Public Defender Alex Lilien said in a statement, "David is a sweet kid who never meant to hurt anyone. I am relieved the jury was able to determine the truth – that Freddy's death was a terrible, tragic accident."
Lilien noted that Dr. Venus Azar, who performed the autopsy, had "testified that Canul-Arguello's injuries were not inconsistent with erotic asphyxia."
In a brief interview, he said, "I was a little disappointed" on some of the convictions, since he doesn't believe Diaz intended to burn the body or destroy evidence, but "the jurors did their job."
In an email, Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the district attorney's office, said, "We find it very disturbing that the victim was killed and that his body was subsequently burned. However, we respect the jury's decision."
The maximum sentence for involuntary manslaughter is four years. However, Diaz, who has already been in custody for just over three years, may be sentenced to less time than that, according to Lilien. Among the factors in the time he could serve, Diaz may be able to serve time concurrently for the other convictions.
"He's likely done all the time they could sentence him to," Lilien said.
Diaz's next court date is September 3, when Lilien will ask that he be released before his sentencing.