Despite conceding that his client drove the car that killed Desiree Bragg, defense lawyer Jesse Kalter on Thursday asked jurors to acquit his client.
The case went to the jury at noon following lengthy closing arguments from both sides.
Kalter told jurors the prosecution’s case hangs on the year-old preliminary hearing testimony of Bragg’s fiancé, Steven Castro, who didn’t testify in the case. He said that testimony, introduced to the jury on the first day of the trial, is littered with inconsistencies and missing one major thing: a motive to explain why Cardoza would want to kill the couple.
He said that according to Castro, his client “shows up at that intersection and goes nuts and road rages and tailgates them all the way across the city.”
“It makes no sense that someone goes ballistic and starts killing people.”
Kalter said there are numerous holes in Castro’s testimony, in which he said Cardoza followed them, tailgating, from Lompa Lane and U.S. Highway 50 to a house on Cinnabar Avenue off College Parkway. He said a key issue was Castro’s claim Cardoza backed off on the off-ramp from the bypass to College Parkway when he saw a sheriff’s car sitting at the red light, waiting to turn onto the freeway.
“If the officer was going east on College Parkway, there is no stoplight for him to get on the on-ramp,” he said. “You just merge right.”
If he was going the other way, Kalter said, Cardoza in his minivan would not have been able to see the sheriff’s car until he got to the bottom of the ramp.
He said there also was confusion over whether Castro or Bragg was driving, given that Castro said at one point that he turned onto Cinnabar.
He said Castro told several stories about hitting Cardoza with his fist and a chair leg at the scene of Bragg’s death, and different stories about whether her brother also hit Cardoza. Kalter said even Bragg’s brother said he thought Cardoza “was too drunk to do anything.”
He also reminded jurors that everyone who dealt with Cardoza, from his family to the bartenders who saw him the night of Bragg’s death, referred to him as softspoken and quiet, not hostile or confrontational. That doesn’t sound like someone who would “go ballistic” over nothing and take out his road rage on Bragg, Kalter said.
He said Bragg’s death wasn’t murder, but an accident, involving a man too intoxicated to even form the intent to kill someone. He said in that state, and fearing an attack by Castro, Cardoza accidentally put the van in drive instead of reverse and struck Bragg.
He also said there was testimony from several people that Castro had a bad temper.
With so many holes in Castro’s story, Kalter said, the prosecution has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Bragg was murdered.
“It’s not Mr. Cardoza’s burden to prove his innocence to you,” he said. “It’s the state’s burden to prove beyond reasonable doubt each and every element of the offense. Mr. Cardoza, Leonardo, is not a murderer.”
He asked the panel to acquit Cardoza of the charges of murdering Bragg and trying to murder Castro.
In rebuttal, District Attorney Neil Rombardo said expert testimony put Cardoza’s blood-alcohol level at 0.275 that night — a level that crime lab chemist Rachelle Spear testified would put anyone except an alcoholic into a stupor. He said Cardoza was able to function with that much alcohol in his system because he is an alcoholic.
“The defense wants you to believe his intoxication took away his intent,” he said. “He lived an intoxicated life. He can form intent while intoxicated.”
He said Cardoza snapped that night, followed the couple’s car across town and deliberately killed Bragg by using his van to crush her against the wall of her mom’s house.
“He aimed at her like one would aim a weapon,” he said.
Rombardo also said there is no evidence to support Cardoza’s claim he was trying to escape Castro’s attacks when he put the vehicle in the wrong gear.
“There is not one piece of evidence he was struck before he ran down Desiree Bragg,” Rombardo said.
He charged that Cardoza’s version of events doesn’t make sense, and that his claim he is just a social drinker makes even less sense, given that he acknowledged having 14 drinks that night but was described as sober by bartenders, deputies and even the paramedic who examined his injuries at the scene.
Rombardo said Cardoza’s version of what happened at the scene would have taken several minutes to unfold but that other witnesses, including Bragg’s mother and brother, said it was about 10 seconds between when the vehicles arrived and when the van slammed into the house, killing Bragg.
“This was no accident. It was murder,” he said.