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Defense calls killing a ‘tragic accident’ as trial of tenants rights attorney begins

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Video still appearing to show Carlos Argueta waving a knife within moments of allegedly stabbing James Thomas on Sixth and Market streets Sept. 3, 2015 (Courtesy photo).

A complicated murder case embroiled in allegations about prosecutorial misconduct went to trial Thursday, but none of the flare made it into the courtroom for opening statements.

Instead, jurors heard arguments over whether defendant Carlos Argueta intended to stab a 61-year-old street merchant named James “Rick” Thomas on Sixth Street near Market Street on the evening Sept. 3, 2015.

Argueta, 34, provided legal services for tenants as an attorney for the nonprofit Eviction Defense Collaborative. He and his coworkers were out drinking at the Showdown Bar to celebrate the departure of intern Pascal Krummenacher, then 21.

The case centers around a series of altercations over a backpack and a messenger bag that unfolded after Argueta dragged a drunken Krummenacher out of the bar. Though most of the events were captured on surveillance footage, the prosecution and defense have wildly different interpretations of what transpired.

Prosecutor Adam Maldonado painted Argueta as the aggressor in the incident who robbed Thomas of his red backpack at knifepoint before rushing the older man with the steel blade and stabbing him in the heart.

But Public Defender Jeff Adachi argued that his client accidentally stabbed Thomas after pulling out the pocket knife to defend himself and Krummenacher from Thomas and two other men.

“Evidence will show this is a tragic, tragic accident,” Adachi said.

The trial comes two years after a judge decided there was insufficient evidence for Argueta to stand trial on the allegations at the end of a preliminary hearing in November 2016. But months later, the District Attorney’s Office secured an indictment against Argueta from a grand jury, resulting in today’s trial.

Before the trial started, Adachi sought to dismiss the charges against his client by accusing prosecutor Andrew Ganz of misrepresenting evidence that would benefit the defense to the grand jury.

Adachi also accused Judge Ethan Schulman, who Adachi did not want to rule on a motion to dismiss the case, of being biased against Latinos and defendants. Schulman denied the allegations. Another judge has yet to rule on the motion.

Last week, a State Bar Court judge found Ganz acted with gross negligence in an unrelated case out of Solano County and recommended that he be suspended for 90 days. Ganz’s attorney disputed the findings.

Judge Samuel Feng ruled that Adachi cannot discuss Ganz’s alleged misconduct in the Argueta trial, so jurors will not hear about it.

On Thursday, a jury heard two conflicting narratives about the two bags at the center of the alleged robbery.

After leaving work at around 5 p.m., Argueta and Krummenacher walked to the now-defunct Showdown Bar next to Tu Lan Vietnamese restaurant.

The two were joined by colleagues and had “shot, after shot, after shot” over the next two hours until Krummenacher slumped over the bar, Maldonado said. Staff asked the them to leave and Argueta dragged his coworker out onto Sixth Street.

After leaning on the wall together outside the bar, Argueta and Krummenacher walked toward Thomas, who was eating dinner on the northwest corner of Market and Sixth streets, according to Maldonado.

Krummenacher struggled to walk in a straight line and grabbed a red backpack that belonged to Thomas from a shopping cart he used, resulting a struggle, according to Maldonado.

Argueta stepped in and engaged in a tug-of-war with Thomas against a parked car for about a minute, according to Maldonado.

Adachi argued that Krummenacher believed the bag was his and that Argueta acted to defend his friend.

At some point in the altercation, Krummenacher ended up with the red backpack and was hit over the head with a skateboard by another man. Thomas then walked over and picked up his backpack.

No longer pinned against the car by Thomas, Argueta started to walk off before a group of men quickly surrounded him, Adachi said. When he emerged from the crowd he no longer had his messenger bag.

Argueta and Krummenacher then walked up Market Street. Thomas and several other men pursued. Surveillance video showed the men pushed Krummenacher to the ground and Thomas swung his backpack at Argueta.

In response, Argueta pulled out his knife. While Maldonado said Argueta drew the weapon to rob Thomas, Adachi said his client acted to defend himself from Thomas and to defend Krummenacher from the men.

Argueta obtained the backpack and handed it to Krummenacher, Maldonado said.

Surveillance footage shows Thomas and the men walked back to Sixth Street while Argueta followed behind with the knife in his hand.

Krummenacher left the scene with the red backpack in tow and went to the BART Station.

“This case should have ended there,” Maldonado said. “Thomas would still be here if the case ended there.”

Instead, Maldonado said Argueta decided to return to the intersection and become the aggressor, rushing Thomas in front of the Tu Lan restaurant and stabbing him in the chest.

Adachi argued that Argueta went back to Sixth and Market streets not to follow Thomas, but to retrieve the messenger bag he previously lost. Adachi said the bag contained important information about Argueta’s clients.

Adachi said video showed Thomas punched Argueta in the ear. He said Argueta stabbed Thomas in an “automatic” response when he pushed him away.

“Carlos is just not the kind of person who is going to stab somebody in the heart intentionally for no reason,” Adachi said.

Thomas dropped to a knee as he bled to death. The blade had grazed his lung and pierced his heart, according to Maldonado.

Adachi said Argueta went into Tu Lan restaurant for safety and waited for the police to arrive.

Maldonado said Thomas was a life-long San Franciscan. He showed the jury a picture of a dapper Thomas, wearing a fedora and a blazer.

Adachi said the case “derailed” Argueta’s life.

“Carlos thinks about what happened that night every day,” Adachi said, adding that his client has found religion. “Since that night he has not had a single drop of alcohol.”

Prosecutor is declined to refile charges against Krummenacher after his case was dismissed in 2016. Adachi said Krummenacher is from an affluent family in Switzerland and is the son of a CEO for Nestle in Africa.

Adachi said Argueta will testify in the trial, which is scheduled to resume Tuesday.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

mtoren@sfexaminer.com

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