A Newport Beach-based defense attorney accused Orange County prosecutors of “over-charging” some cases Friday, a day after he won an acquittal for a client who was accused of attempted murder in a Huntington Beach bar stabbing.
Justin Pretuna, 33, was acquitted Thursday of attempted murder. Jurors deliberated for about 80 minutes, said his attorney, Mark Fredrick.
Two days before the acquittal, Orange County Superior Court Judge David Hoffer dismissed a sentencing enhancement allegation of attempted murder with premeditation and deliberation. The enhancement would have mandated a life sentence for the defendant.
“I don’t think he should have been charged with premeditation and deliberation,” Fredrick told City News Service.
Fredrick accused prosecutors of over-charging cases with that sentencing enhancement at times.
“I think the District Attorney’s Office uses that in some cases to get leverage over a defendant, and I don’t think that’s a fair use of their charging discretion,” Fredrick said.
When the verdict was read, Petruna “broke down and absolutely sobbed in open court,” Fredrick said. “He had 15 family members in court and there was not enough tissue boxes to go around. It was scary. This was one of the most stressful cases I’ve ever done. I thought: I can’t lose this case.”
Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, said Fredrick’s accusation was “unethical,” because he was alleging prosecutors did something unethical.
“He has no proof we’ve done anything unethical,” Schroeder said. “I don’t know how anybody can argue that we overfiled the case. The (victim) almost died… Certain allegations are so baseless they shouldn’t be printed.”
Fredrick replied, “I don’t believe the rest of the people in the District Attorney’s Office would have the same view of me that Susan Schroeder has.”
The conflict happened July 25, 2013, at the Out of Bounds bar in Huntington Beach.
Austin Baca told Petruna, who he had never met before, that Petruna’s friend Doug was a meth dealer, Fredrick said. When the friend, who was out of earshot at the time, returned to Petruna, the defendant told him what Baca had said, angering Baca, Fredrick said.
Baca told Petruna, “I’ll (expletive) gut you (expletive) for talking (expletive),” according to Fredrick.
Baca left and returned to resume the conflict with help from his friend, Klark Kent Sparks, Fredrick said.
As Petruna’s friend tried to keep him separated from Baca, Baca punched Petruna in the head, Fredrick said.
The friend, Doug, got out of the way and as Baca kept swinging at Petruna, connecting a few more times, Petruna stabbed Baca multiple times with a knife he often carried with him for work.
It had about a 4-inch blade with a serrated edge that he, and his co- workers, often used to open packages at the family water purification business that Petruna runs, Fredrick said.
A doctor testified that Baca was in “very critical condition,” and that his heart was punctured, Fredrick said.
“He’s very lucky to be alive,” Fredrick said.
Assistant District Attorney Dennis Conway said his office filed the enhancement because the legal theory was that Petruna provoked Baca into attacking him so he could stab him. Baca’s alcohol level was 0.26 percent, more than three times the legal limit for driving, Conway said.
“Mark Fredrick is being a sore winner,” Conway said. “The system worked —we didn’t over file the case. This is why we have jury trials, and I respect their verdict.”
Petruna stabbed Baca 11 times, Conway said.
It was a difficult case for prosecutors because they have an enhanced “burden” to disprove self-defense, Conway said.
“The victim is a .26, he’s a jerk and (Petruna) provokes him and provokes him, and when he gets the guy to do what he wants to do, which is punch him, he stabs him 11 times in the heart,” Conway said. “He used the opportunity to stab him. You can’t use deadly force unless you’re faced with deadly force.”
Senior Deputy District Attorney Paul Chrisopolous, who is also part of the unit that decided on the charges, argued that Petruna did not act like an innocent person following the incident.
“He goes to the bathroom, washes the knife, ditches it in the trash can and runs out of the bar and jumps over fences to get away,” Chrisopolous said. “Then he says a mob of eight was attacking him.”
Fredrick said his client fled the bar “because people at the bar were chasing him… And when police responded to the area and he saw a police officer he walked toward the police officer and they did apprehend him then.”
Other than a disturbance of the peace conviction 16 years ago, Petruna has no criminal record, Fredrick said. His client had just finished dinner with his family and asked his wife if it was OK to accept a friend’s invitation to have a drink at the bar, Fredrick said.
“And then this happened,” Fredrick said. “He has a 6-month-old baby at home.”
Jurors told Fredrick that he won the argument when told the panel that prosecutors had to prove his client had an intent to kill the victim, the attorney said.
— City News Service