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Jurors to decide fate of tenants rights attorney charged in fatal stabbing

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Carlos Argueta, right, has been recharged with murder for allegedly killing 61-year-old James Thomas in 2015. (Courtesy Argueta family)

Three years after a lawyer out drinking with coworkers stabbed a street merchant in the heart, a San Francisco jury will soon decide whether the killing amounts to murder, manslaughter or a justifiable accident.

Jurors heard closing arguments Thursday in the trial of 34-year-old Carlos Argueta, who pulled a knife on James “Rick” Thomas, 61, during a series of confrontations near Sixth and Market streets on Sept. 3, 2015.

The trial started four weeks ago after a number of twists and turns in the case as Public Defender Jeff Adachi sought to have the charges dropped against Argueta. The latest development came this week when San Francisco Superior Court Judge Samuel Feng dismissed the robbery charge against Argueta.

This is the second time that the District Attorney’s Office has tried to convict Argueta. A judge found there was insufficient evidence to support the charges against him and a coworker, Pascal Krummenacher, in 2016, but the case was revived when a grand jury indicted him on murder and robbery in 2017.

During closing arguments Thursday, prosecutor Adam Maldonado conceded that Argueta had no intention of killing Thomas. He instead argued for a second-degree murder conviction under a theory of implied malice, alleging that Argueta knowingly pulled a knife in public despite the risk of death.

Adachi argued that the jury should acquit Argueta because he drew the blade in self-defense and then stabbed Thomas on accident. He attempted to poke holes in the prosecution’s case and told the jury that Maldonado’s “star witness” in the case had lied on the stand about what he saw.

The confrontation that led to the killing started when Argueta, then an attorney for the Eviction Defense Collaborative, left the Showdown Bar with a coworker who drunkenly took a bag from the shopping cart that belonged to Thomas.

A tug-of-war over the bag ensued between Argueta and Thomas, during which Argueta lost his own bag. Other men became involved in the situation, and one of them hit his coworker over the head with a skateboard.

The violence continued when a group of men including Thomas followed Argueta and his coworker up Market Street. Adachi claims Argueta drew his knife in self-defense when Thomas swung a bag at him.

Thomas and the other men then retreated to the corner of Sixth and Market streets. Argueta took the stand during the trial and testified that he followed behind them to look for his bag that he lost in the initial scuffle with Thomas.

Maldonado, in arguing for a second-degree murder conviction, said that Argueta crossed the street with the blade still in his hand despite knowing “the people that were there were only hostile toward him.”

“Mr. Argueta disregarded all of the inherent risks that go along with taking a knife out in a public place,” Maldonado said.

Maldonado urged the jury to at the very least convict Argueta of involuntary manslaughter for allegedly acting with criminal negligence.

Adachi challenged the idea that Argueta crossing the street to retrieve his bag created a “risk that someone was going to die.”

“It’s not illegal to have a knife in your hand,” Adachi said.

Once across the street, Argueta stabbed Thomas in a final confrontation during which the older man punched him in the head.

“We do not punish people for accidents,” Adachi said. “We feel terrible about what happened here. Carlos is going to have to live for the rest of his life with what happened. But nothing is going to change the fact that Mr. Thomas is gone.”

Jurors are expected to begin deliberating on Monday.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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