Even rookie cops know they can't ethically question an arrested criminal suspect who invokes the constitutional right to consult an attorney, but Laguna Beach police botched the long-established rule during a 2009 murder investigation.
A three-justice panel at the California Court of Appeal announced this month that detectives should have "immediately" stopped questioning Matthew Thomas Dragna after he repeatedly demanded legal counsel following his arrest in the robbery/killing of Damon Nicholson, a popular hospitality industry manager.
The attorney general's office acknowledged the police error but argued it was "harmless" because, they claimed, other overwhelming evidence, including DNA, proved Dragna guilty of first-degree murder.
But Justice Richard Aronson, who wrote the unanimous ruling, disagreed, declaring the AG's position flawed.
According to Aronson, the illegally obtained and introduced evidence—the "centerpiece of the [government's] case"—was the only record that placed the defendant at the crime scene at the time of the killing.
"The presence of Dragna's DNA [at the crime scene] was consistent with testimony about an earlier tryst [with Nicholson on a different date]," the ruling states. "If not for Dragna's admission he was with [his co-defendant, then-20-year-old Jacob Quintanilla] at Nicholson's apartment [during the murder], albeit outside in the car . . . it is reasonably possible the jury may have concluded Dragna merely shared personal information with Quintanilla that led the latter to plan the robbery on his own and that Dragna did not share his intent."
In other words, the jury could have believed the defendant was only guilty of accessory after the fact or of receiving stolen property—a laptop computer and cell phone, according to Aronson.
Nicholson was beaten to death with a miniature baseball bat in his North Laguna Beach apartment during what he expected would be an anonymous sex date.
Shortly after the killing, Dragna, then a 19-year-old high school dropout living with his mother, attempted to sell the victim's computer on the black market.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Police recovered the stolen cell phone in a trashcan at a Lake Forest apartment complex where Quintanilla and Dragna lived.
The appellate ruling means the Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA) will likely seek a new trial.
Dragna has been serving a life without possibility for parole sentence at California's notorious Corcoran State Prison.
For prior coverage of the trial, see "Laguna Beach Gay on Gay Murder Ends With Severe Prison Trip," February 28, 2014.