Jurors in San Francisco found a 34-year-old attorney not guilty of murder and manslaughter on Tuesday for fatally stabbing a man on Sixth Street after Public Defender Jeff Adachi argued the killing was an accident.
The jury acquitted Carlos Argueta of second-degree murder and the lesser included charges of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter in the killing of James “Rick” Thomas on Sept. 3, 2015.
Argueta, who worked as an eviction defense attorney in Mid-Market, put his head down and wept into a cloth after the clerk read the verdicts. He then turned to his attorney, Adachi, and mouthed the words, “Thank you Jeff.”
A judge had previously dismissed charges against Argueta at the end of a preliminary hearing on the case in 2016, but a grand jury indicted him on new murder and robbery charges last year.
Then earlier this month, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Samuel Feng threw out the robbery charge a day before closing arguments in the trial.
“I’m glad that I have my life back now,” Argueta told reporters outside the courtroom. “It’s been three years, and I thought I had it back when it got dismissed the first time and then I ended up back here. I’m just so thankful.”
District Attorney George Gascon told the San Francisco Examiner the verdict disappointed him but he stands by his decision to charge Argueta.
“We evaluated this case very closely,” Gascon said. “We looked at the evidence in this case. We continue to believe that it was an unlawful killing. We think that in some aspects this homeless person became the victim of an assault that shouldn’t have happened. The jury disagreed with our assessment and we accept that.”
The case centered around a series of altercations that started after Argueta left the Showdown Bar with his coworker and ended when Argueta stabbed Thomas with a knife outside the Tu Lan Vietnamese restaurant.
Argueta worked as an attorney for the Eviction Defense Collaborative at an office across the street. Thomas made a living as a street merchant selling goods from a cart on Sixth Street and other parts of San Francisco.
A tug-of-war ensued between the two men when Pascal Krummenacher, an intern who worked with Argueta, drunkenly grabbed a bag from Thomas’ cart.
Argueta lost his own bag in the struggle. A group of men then followed Argueta and Krummenacher up Market Street where a man hit Krummenacher and Thomas swung a bag at Argueta.
But the men retreated when Argueta drew his knife in self-defense, Adachi said.
Surveillance cameras recorded Argueta as he then walked back to Sixth Street behind the men with the knife in his hand. Adachi argued that Argueta returned to retrieve his own bag, which he had lost in the initial struggle.
But Assistant District Attorney Adam Maldonado argued that his decision to return to Sixth Street constituted second-degree murder, if not manslaughter, because of the risks that came with going back to the corner.
In the final encounter, Thomas punched Argueta in the head and Argueta stabbed him in the heart. Adachi argued that the stabbing was an accident.
A surveillance camera captured Argueta pushing Thomas but an obstruction blocked the moments of the actual stabbing.
“We couldn’t tell what was behind it,” jury foreperson Sam Rodarte told the Examiner after the verdict. “We concluded that the stabbing happened behind the obstruction and during the struggle we could speculate all kinds of things like, ‘Did Mr. Thomas accidentally fall on the knife during the struggle?’”
The verdict marks an end to years of legal battles over the case, which stretched far beyond the facts of the actual stabbing. Adachi raised allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and racism in the judiciary in an unsuccessful attempt to have the second round of charges dismissed before trial.
“This is a huge relief for this young man,” Adachi told reporters.
The verdict also represents the end of a three-year chapter for Argueta that could have resulted in him spending the rest of his life behind bars. For Adachi, the verdict raises issues with the way cases are charged in The City.
“It’s all too common in San Francisco and other places where the district attorney can simply charge a murder case because she or he can, and as a result the person has no choice except to plead guilty or go to trial,” Adachi said.
“I thought that from the very beginning this case should have been tried as a manslaughter.”