Few people like to be ordered to a courtroom and on Thursday inside Orange County's central courthouse that list most certainly included reluctant, Laguna Beach gay murder case witness Daniel Robert Garner.
Matthew Dragna, one of Garner's associates, is on trial for the 2009, special circumstances robbery and killing of 41-year-old Damon Nicholson, an Arizona native, photography enthusiast and the popular catering manager at the Hotel Laguna.
According to police, Lake Forest-resident Dragna and another man had a wild, sexual rendezvous with Nicholson at his Laguna Beach apartment one night and Dragna returned unannounced the next evening with a different boyfriend, Jacob Quintanilla.
That duo allegedly used a baseball bat to savagely crush Nicholson's skull, end a life and steal property.
Key elements of prosecutor Matt Murphy's case include proving that CSI investigators recovered fingerprints from Dragna and Quintanilla on items stolen from Nicholson's apartment as well as the assertion that, after the killing, Dragna attempted to sell the victim's laptop and Adobe publishing software to other murky figures.
It's unlikely this bizarrely hostile witness knew he was facing one of California's most highly-skilled homicide prosecutors–a senior deputy district attorney whose courthouse feats deservedly have been featured on national, prime time television crime shows so often over the years I've lost count.
What sets Murphy apart from most other government law enforcement lawyers is a combination of attributes. He's ethical, dogged, humble and imperturbable. He also has a gift of connecting emotionally and intellectually with a constant stream of juries in gut-wrenching trials.
If you think I'm embellishing, please know that description isn't just mine after more than a decade of watching his work; it's common among Murphy's criminal defense lawyer opponents and, more privately, seasoned judges.
So, there was Garner–a testy, recovering drug addict with unresolved criminal woes–and Murphy, who'd rather be relentlessly hunting down a killer or surfing than drinking in a bar, facing off in Judge James A. Stotler's 9th floor courtroom yesterday.
The prosecutor simply wanted Garner to share with jurors what he'd previously told a note-taking, Laguna Beach Police Department (LBPD) detective after the killing: Dragna–the witnesses' unemployed, partying buddy–offered to sell him a MacBook Pro and Adobe software in the wake of Nicholson's murder.
But Garner didn't just refuse to cooperate on the witness stand. He unwisely decided to play games with Murphy. I perked up in a squeaky, wooden courtroom seat.
After initially testifying he did tell police Dragna tried to sell him the items, he added that he couldn't remember any details of the unsuccessful transaction because of his monumental drug abuse at the time.
Then he repeatedly backed off the statement–basically asserting he wasn't going to say anything one way or another, which prompted Murphy to ask if he'd lied to the inquiring detective in the weeks after the murder.
“No,” he said.
After a pause, Garner blurted out he hadn't been “intentionally dishonest” with police.
Jurors closely watched the scene and Murphy boxed the witness in to the point that he uncomfortably asserted his present non-existent memory is now, four years after the fact, better about what happened than shortly after the crime.
The prosecutor asked Garner if he was again trying to wiggle out of what he told a detective and he seemed to have finally settled for a final stance.
He replied, “No, no.”
That answer seemed to have irked Stotler, who noted the double negative created a poor official transcript.
Garner was re-asked if he'd lied to the detective trying to solve the case.
He paused, inhaled, exhaled and stated, “No.”
Murphy nodded and Stotler looked relieved at the probable thought the game had ended after more than 30 minutes of wrangling.
Then, Garner added, “But what do you mean by 'lie'?”
If the witness had been trying to trip up the government's case against Dragna, he failed.
The exchanges only bolstered what Murphy wanted jurors to appreciate: Garner's testimony was far less credible than the LBPD detective's report of his interview with the witness just after the killing.
The prosecutor smiled and calmly asked Garner if he'd wanted to cooperate in the trial.
“I'd rather not be here,” he replied, saying the obvious.
Eye-rolling jurors were ordered out of the courtroom so that two undercover police officers secretly could take the witness out a back exit and to his temporary home: Orange County Jail.
He's being held in custody on $15,000 bail for an unrelated criminal warrant stemming from a prior receiving stolen property conviction in 2011 and is set to answer to a judge on Dec. 16.
The case against high school dropout Dragna, who is represented by public defender Frank Bittar, resumes next week.
Bittar is accusing police of botching their investigation to erroneously charge his client with murder when he says Quintanilla, who faces a separate trial most likely next year, is the lone killer of Nicholson.