The defense attorney for a Salt Lake County youth accused of killing the son of a movie actress said his client is not a murderer or a gang member and did not hit the victim because of race.
Attorney Phil Hansen said John Tavo Leota, 18, punched Malik Smith, 18, over a "stupid argument" about a type of dancing.Smith is the son of actress Beverly Todd and TV producer Kris Kaiser.
"He's admitting to hitting (Smith), but it wasn't a brutal kicking thing. He didn't do it with any intent to kill," Hansen told the Deseret News on Wednesday morning.
Leota, 773 E. 6775 South, charged with second-degree murder, appeared Wednesday before 3rd Circuit Judge Philip Palmer, who scheduled an April 5 preliminary hearing.
Following the arraignment, Leota's mother, Elvina Leota, embraced Todd and told reporters that the suspect is her and her husband's only son.
"I know my son very well. He's not that kind of boy," she said, apparently referring to accounts that the killing was intentional and unprovoked.
Hansen said he believes that John Leota was "overcharged" by prosecutors, saying Leota's actions do not rise to the level of murder. "We're going to be fighting this 100 percent."
A criminal complaint accuses Leota of pummeling Smith "with his fist with sufficient force to knock him approximately six feet." The blow caused Smith to fall and strike his head at Studio 35, a West Valley disco at 1959 W. 35th South.
Witnesses told police the victim was also kicked in the face and that the attack was unprovoked. The complaint, however, does not mention any kicking.
The complaint says Leota told police he "intended to injure" Smith.
The victim's parents - along with representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, of which Todd is a member - came to Salt Lake City on Monday and met with investigators Tuesday.
"I am a mother, and I am very upset that my son was killed," Todd told reporters Tuesday evening after a closed-door conference with prosecutors. "But I'm confident that justice will be served."
Kaiser, flanked by NAACP representatives, said he and his wife want to ensure that "no stone is left unturned."
The presence of the NAACP suggests some question that the killing may be racially motivated, but Willis Edwards, president of the Hollywood chapter, said he and the organization are here to offer support to the victim's family.
Hansen denied that race had anything to do with the incident. The attorney also denounced widespread publicity on the case, saying it shouldn't be emphasized in the media "just because the victim's mother is an actress."
Smith was in town with a friend for a week of skiing. Saturday evening, the two, along with a cousin, went to Studio 35, a non-alcoholic dance hall for people 17 and older. The violence occurred about 11:20 p.m., while Smith's two companions were at a nearby restaurant.
Suffering from extreme swelling on the side of his face and bleeding from the mouth, the unconscious Smith was flown to University Hospital. He never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead Monday evening.
Leota, who is also charged with felony assault for allegedly giving another disco patron a concussion, is being held in the county jail in lieu of $100,000 bail.