A convicted drunken driver fled the scene of a DUI crash five years ago in Westminster that killed a friend he met at a sober living facility which expelled him for violating rules, a prosecutor told jurors Tuesday, but a defense attorney said the evidence will show his client is not guilty of second-degree murder.
Jonathan Aaron Samoff, 30, is charged in the March 8, 2014, death of 25-year-old Isaias Tang.
“Interestingly enough, this case begins on Sept. 19, 2009, when (Samoff) picked up a misdemeanor DUI conviction in Los Angeles County,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Dan Feldman said in his opening statement.
He told jurors that Samoff, in pleading guilty to that charge on Nov. 20, 2009, was warned that if he drove drunk again and it resulted in someone’s death, he could face an upgrade in charges from vehicular manslaughter to second-degree murder.
Samoff was also ordered to participate in a three-month, first-offender program for drunken drivers that educates them on the dangers of drinking while impaired and mandates attendance at 12-step meetings for alcoholics or drug addicts, the prosecutor said.
“The evidence shows he had knowledge of the dangers of drinking and driving and he did it anyway,” Feldman said.
On March 7, 2014, Samoff was kicked out of a sober living home in Anaheim for violating rules. He befriended the victim at that facility, according to Feldman.
A witness is expected to testify he saw the pair at a gym in Fullerton about 10 that night and they appeared to be intoxicated, the prosecutor said.
“He smelled the odor of alcohol and marijuana,” Feldman said.
According to the prosecutor, the two said they had plans to go to a bar in Fullerton later.
About 2:15 the following morning, the pair visited with Tang’s cousin, who told Tang that she had just been diagnosed with lupus, Feldman said. During a tearful conversation in which Tang tried to console her, she made him promise that he would not get behind the wheel of a car since he had been drinking, Feldman said.
Samoff, “who looked fine” to Tang’s cousin, introduced himself as Tang’s “designated driver,” the prosecutor said.
At 2:54 a.m., police were called to Magnolia Street and Oasis Avenue, where a Toyota Camry had slammed into a wall, Feldman said.
The defendant pulled Tang out of the car and “left him on the curb to die,” Feldman alleged.
He said Samoff ran from the crash scene and went to his father’s home, where the defendant’s aunt noticed he had a “fresh” head wound and took him to a local hospital, where his blood was drawn. Samoff’s blood-alcohol level just before 5 a.m. was .11, well over the legal limit of .08, according to the prosecutor. An expert is expected to testify that the defendant’s blood-alcohol level at the time of the crash was .15, nearly double the legal limit, Feldman said.
Samoff’s DNA was on the driver’s side air bag, and Tang’s was on the passenger side airbag, according to Feldman, who said a neighbor who heard the crash and looked over the wall where the car crashed is expected to testify he saw a man in a hood pull Tang out of the car.
Samoff fled the state after the crash and was arrested in October 2014 in Omaha, Nebraska.
Defense attorney Eugene Sung said his client was a “young man with a bright future” when he was arrested for driving drunk in Los Angeles County in 2009.
“He had a wake-up call and there were issues he had to deal with, which ultimately takes him to the sober living home in Anaheim,” Sung said.
He said Samoff did not leave his friend “to die” on the curb because the victim was killed instantly in the crash.
“When you hear all the evidence, you’re going to realize this is a tragedy — a horrible, horrible tragedy,” Sung said. “And the tragedy is it was an accident … You’ll come to the conclusion that this was an accident that doesn’t equate to a murder.”
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