A Salt Lake County man has been ordered to stand trial on a charge he murdered the son of a movie actress.
In a hearing Friday in 3rd Circuit Court, Judge Robin Reese ordered John Tavo Leota, 18, to be arraigned May 12 before 3rd District Judge Homer Wilkinson on charges of second-degree murder and aggravated assault.Defense attorney Phil Hansen had asked Reese to reduce the murder charge to manslaughter or negligent homicide.
But Reese found there is probable cause to believe Leota "intended to cause serious bodily injury" to Malik Smith, 18, who was punched in the face March 18 at Studio 35, a disco in West Valley City.
According to testimony, Smith fell backward and struck his head on the floor or wall and was knocked unconscious. He never regained consciousness and died two days later.
Smith,, of Los Angeles, was the son of actress Beverly Todd and producer Kris Kaiser.
"The jury could find a hard blow as administered by the defendant, which was with sufficient force to lift the victim 6 inches off the ground, was intended to cause serious injury and that the defendant knew it could cause serious injury or death," the judge said.
In his ruling, however, the judge deleted language in the murder charge that alleged Leota acted with "depraved indifference to human life," which was one of two theories on which prosecutor Kent Morgan had based the murder charge.
After the hearing, Hansen told reporters he was pleased that the judge amended the charge but said he still believes the state "overcharged" the case.
He attributed the "overcharging" to pressures brought on by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which sent a Hollywood representative to Utah.
There were two NAACP representatives at Friday's hearing along with the victim's family. None wished to comment.
Hansen also said he believes prosecutors charged the case as murder because it was well publicized.
He said a similar homicide arising out of a fistfight at a State Street bar last June was not charged as murder but as manslaughter.
According to testimony in a preliminary hearing April 5, Leota accosted Smith in the disco's video room. Smith, who appeared to be backing off, was then struck by Leota.
A medical examiner testified that Smith died of injuries to the brain.
Leota, who is free on a $200,000 property bond, is also charged with aggravated assault, accused of striking an Ogden man, giving him a concussion.
The victim of the assault testified that Leota was wearing gang colors and using gang terms and signs.