Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Santistevan convicted of attempted murder

Defendant explodes, hauled out of court by bailiffs

Express Staff Writer

David L. Santistevan

Shortly after a jury found David L. Santistevan guilty on two counts of attempted murder Tuesday afternoon, he exploded in a fit of tears, cleared the table in front of him and stood up before being restrained by four bailiffs and Blaine County Sheriff's Office deputies.

"I was defending myself," Santistevan said as his words trailed into sobs. "I can't take this," he later added.

Bailiffs handcuffed Santistevan in the courtroom and hauled him out before court was reconvened to finish the business of his convictions.

At about 12:30 p.m., the jury of 12 Blaine County residents found Santistevan guilty of two counts of attempted murder in the second degree and also use of a 9 mm hand gun in the March 29, 2004, shootings of two Bellevue teens in an alley behind the Silver Dollar Saloon in Bellevue.

The conviction on both counts was the severest Santistevan faced.

The jury began deliberating about noon on Friday, Dec. 10, following closing arguments from prosecuting and defense lawyers. In all, the jury deliberated for about 16 hours.

For each count, Santistevan faces up to 15 years in prison for a total maximum penalty of 45 years in a state penitentiary. He is 47 years old.

He will continue to be held in the Blaine County Jail in lieu of a $1 million bond until his sentencing hearing, which has not yet been scheduled.

"There was definitely some drama," said Blaine County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Justin Whatcott. "He blew up and showed his true colors, that's for sure. I couldn't have foreseen anything like that except in the movies."

Santistevan's trial began with jury selection on Monday, Dec. 6, and opening arguments followed on the next morning. Prosecuting attorneys called witnesses throughout the day, and on Wednesday and Thursday mornings. Defense attorneys took over late Thursday morning and wrapped up their case late Thursday afternoon. Closing arguments by both prosecution and defense lawyers concluded by mid-day Friday.

Before releasing the jury to deliberate, 5th District Judge Robert Elgee instructed jurors they had three conviction options for each of the two counts Santistevan faced—attempted murder in the second degree, aggravated battery or acquittal based on the defense's self-defense arguments.

In order to find Santistevan guilty of attempted murder, the jury would need to find that Santistevan intended to kill his victims, Elgee said.

Santistevan was arrested on March 30, the day after he shot the two Bellevue teens in the alley behind the Silver Dollar Saloon.

The fact that Santistevan used a 9-mm handgun to shoot John Marshall Hooten, 19, and Tyrel Peak, 16, on March 29, according to his defense attorney, Keith Roark, was not in dispute. The fact that Santistevan did not call authorities to report the altercation was not in dispute. The fact that he disposed of his handgun after the incident was not in dispute.

The fact that he had sex with his neighbor, took a shower and had a cup of tea before going to bed on March 29 was not in dispute.

In listening to prosecution and defense arguments, the crux of the case appeared to be whether Santistevan or the youths were the aggressors in the altercation, which occurred when the three had two encounters while the teens rode a four-wheeler around Bellevue on the first day of spring break.

In making his closing arguments, Roark attempted to reiterate that the two teens had instigated the encounter they had with Santistevan.

"When a 19-year-old says 'I'm going to find that guy and find out what his problem is,' he's not talking about an intellectual inquiry," Roark said, adding that Hooten, now restricted to a wheelchair as a result of the shooting, was 6-feet 2 inches tall and weighing 220 pounds.

"If Marshall and Tyrel are looking for David Santistevan, they are, up to that point, the aggressors."

If Santistevan had gone to the Silver Dollar Saloon without a gun on March 29, there may not have been a shooting, but there may have been a crime, Roark said.

"Is it possible that it would have been Marshall Hooten sitting at this table with me and David Santistevan sitting there (in a wheelchair)," Roark asked?

But in the end, Roark's statements did not appear to resound with jurors.

Rather, arguments from prosecutors and the evidence and witnesses they hauled into court appear to have stuck more of a nerve.

"What does a defendant do when he's caught red handed?" Whatcott asked in his closing arguments. "He's got to come up with a story. Before he was caught, he wouldn't even admit he was behind the Silver Dollar ... Now he has changed that story, and changed it pretty dramatically, I'd say."

Whatcott called Santistevan "an actor and a storyteller."

"He's coming to you and asking you to let him get away with shooting these two kids," Whatcott told jurors.

One of the defense team's critical arguments was that Santistevan suffered from acute stress disorder at the time of the shootings. Twin Falls psychiatrist Richard Worst, who said he makes $300 per hour to testify in court and $250 per hour to conduct an evaluation, said Santistevan was not able to separate between the two teens and that his reaction to them was exaggerated because of the disorder.

"The whole environment was threatening him because he wasn't interpreting reality correctly," Worst said.

But during a cross-examination, Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas dismissed Worst's testimony as "psychobabble" and implied that the defense team had bought the psychiatrist's testimony.

Whatcott, who prosecuted the trial alongside Thomas, said he has not tried many trials. Nonetheless, he said nerves seem like they're part of the ordeal when the jury is deliberating.

"I think you're always nervous when a jury's out, whether it's an hour or a week," he said. "They took it very seriously. It's a very, very serious case, and they took their duty very seriously.

"I think a verdict like this is important for this community because it says this kind of action is not okay with the community."

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