A Rose Park teenager faces life in prison after a jury convicted him Wednesday night of murdering a man last fall during a botched armed robbery attempt.
Justin Kruger, 17, was charged with murder in the Sept. 13, 1997, death of Solomon Gomez Vasquez, shot once while sitting in his car at 600 North and 1000 West on Salt Lake's west side.According to evidence presented at the three-day trial, Kruger borrowed a .32-caliber handgun with one bullet in it from a friend and was trying to rob the victim.
Kruger maintained, through his attorney Roger Scowcroft, that the gun went off accidentally when Gomez Vasquez tried to drive away, knocking Kruger's hand against the side of the car.
But prosecutor Kent Morgan told the jury that even if the gun went off accidentally, Kruger acted with reckless disregard for Gomez Vasquez's life during the attempted robbery and the crime is still murder under state law.
And, according to testimony from several witnesses, including Kruger's sister, Kruger admitted shooting Gomez Vasquez during the holdup attempt.
Kruger was 16 at the time of the shooting but was certified to stand trial as an adult.
He was also charged with four additional first-degree felonies for a string of armed robberies in the area, including two others the night of the shooting. Those charges were put on hold pending the outcome of his murder trial.
A former neighbor in his Rose Park neighborhood testified Wednesday that the Kruger household was chaotic and his parents fought loudly and often before splitting when Kruger's mother developed cancer and died in 1996.
Four children, with Kruger the oldest at 14, were left alone in the house, according to the neighbor, abandoned by their father after he met another woman.
Vickie Gregory, a psychologist who evaluated Kruger, said he was homeless and living on the streets for some months before eventually being allowed to live in a tent in his father's backyard. He was allowed to come inside the house when his stepmother was not there, Gregory said.
She said Kruger showed signs of physical abuse and also demonstrated signs of alcoholism and some drug use. The abuse left Kruger with some physical impairment, including poor coordination in his right hand, Gregory testified.
In his closing statement to the 3rd District Court jury, Scowcroft argued Kruger is not guilty of murder because he had no intent to shoot Gomez Vasquez. He did point the gun at him, Scowcroft said, but prosecutors presented no evidence that Kruger intended to rob the man.
Scowcroft earlier in the trial tried to have the lesser offense of manslaughter, a second-degree felony, included in the charge, a motion denied by Judge Leslie A. Lewis.
Lewis set sentencing for Kruger, who faces five years to life in prison, for June 24.