A Salt Lake County man accused of killing the son of a movie actress and beating an Ogden man was ordered to stand trial on the assault charge while the judge considers whether to reduce the murder charge.
John Tavo Leota Jr., 18, must appear in 3rd District Court on a felony count of aggravated assault, 3rd Circuit Judge Robin Reese ruled.Reese, however, is not convinced that Leota's actions rise to the offense of murder.
Leota is accused of second-degree murder in the death of Malik Smith, 18, who was beaten at Studio 35, a West Valley disco at 1979 W. 35th South, the night of March 18.
Smith, Los Angeles, was the son of movie actress Beverly Todd and producer Kris Kaiser. He was pronounced dead two days later.
"This case is no more than assault and battery . . . It was a fall to the floor that came initially from one punch," defense attorney Phil Hansen said at the close of a preliminary hearing Wednesday.
Hansen was referring to Medical Examiner Todd Grey's testimony that the blow to Smith's jaw alone didn't kill Smith. It was the subsequent fall to the floor that did.
Reese seemed to agree. "The only physical contact with the victim was a blow to the face. . . . I'm not satisfied that such an act was dangerous to human life."
Prosecutors allege two theories of second-degree murder. The first is that Leota intended to cause serious bodily injury to Smith and "committed an act clearly dangerous to human life." The other theory says Leota acted with "depraved indifference to human life" and "created a grave risk of death to another."
"I would like the opportunity to argue that before a jury," deputy Salt Lake County attorney Kent Morgan told Reese.
The judge requested written legal briefs from both sides on the subject before making a ruling, which will likely come at the end of April.
During testimony Wednesday, witness Chris Foote said he saw Leota strike Smith in the video room of the disco.
"He was lifted off the floor about six inches. . . . He fell to the floor. There was a large echo when he hit," Foote said.
Grey testified that Leota died of injuries to the brain suffered from a blow to the back of the head.
To support the charge of aggravated assault, Morgan called Gregory Alexander, 26, Ogden. Alexander told the court that he was going up the stairs at the disco when he encountered Leota coming down.
"He asked me if I was up on my `color.' I said I was. He flipped me the Crips sign and I did not return it. . . . He put his (left) hand on my chest and hit me. . . . He hit me pretty hard."
Alexander said he was then pulled down the stairs and was pushed and kicked by Leota.
Under cross examination, Alexander explained that "Crips" is a gang name and that their "color" is blue. He also said he believed Leota was a "wanna-be Crip who was taking actions to be a Crip."
"Where do you get the power to conclude that?" asked a defiant Hansen.
"Because of the (blue) bandanna he was wearing and the Crips sign he gave me," Alexander said.
Though police have never said the violence was racially motivated, members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People attended the hearing.