Gory autopsy photos, the criminal history of the deceased and new criminal charges were among the topics discussed Wednesday as both sides in a 2012 manslaughter case met in Douglas County District Court ahead of a May 28 retrial.
Justin P. Gonzalez, 22, of Mission, will again stand trial for involuntary manslaughter in the Feb. 25, 2012, death of Nicholas J. Sardina, a 27-year-old Lawrence man. Sardina died hours after being struck with a bottle by Gonzalez, who said he intervened when Sardina attacked a friend during a house party.
On Wednesday, both sides met for the first of two scheduled pretrial hearings. District Judge Peggy Kittel began by responding to the state’s motion to reconsider a ruling that prosecutors could not publish autopsy photos of blood clots on Sardina’s brain.
Assistant District Attorney Eve Kemple, who is prosecuting alongside James McCabria, argued that the injuries that caused Sardina’s death were not visible. But Kittel recalled the difficulty some jurors had in viewing the graphic photos and said she worried some jurors would look away while the coroner, Erik Mitchell, testified. Kittel instead suggested creating a diagram based off the photo while making photos available to each juror for his or her reference.
The state is also seeking to add two misdemeanor charges of assault and battery against Gonzalez, referring to testimony from Gonzalez in December that he also struck a man who lay on the floor and approached another man in a manner that made it clear he intended to strike him during the fight.
Gonzalez' attorney, Sarah Swain, took up the state’s manslaughter charge and argued that some members of the jury were confused by its three-pronged nature. Prosecutors outlined three alternatives in one count: that Gonzalez killed Sardina recklessly, that Gonzalez killed Sardina while committing a misdemeanor to protect someone else or that Gonzalez killed Sardina during the commission of a lawful act in an unlawful manner. The December 2013 trial ended in a mistrial after the jury could not agree on whether Gonzalez used reasonable or excessive force when he struck Sardina with a beer bottle.
Kittel also asked Wednesday to review up to six hours of video and audio interviews of witnesses to determine whether it would be appropriate to admit the recordings in addition to those same witnesses’ testimony. McCabria argued that some recordings would balance the credibility of witnesses who presented themselves differently on the stand than they did in interviews with law enforcement.
Swain, meanwhile, also filed a motion to reconsider a prior ruling against admitting evidence on Sardina’s character, namely a sentencing for battery that took place in Douglas County District Court the same day of the February 2012 party.
“It goes to his state of mind on that day in question,” Swain said. But Kemple said the victim’s reputation is only relevant to the issue of who initiated the fight, which is not disputed in this case.
Kittel scheduled a May 16 hearing to further discuss pretrial motions. Earlier this year, Sardina's father, Joseph Sardina, filed a wrongful death suit against Gonzalez and Whitney Beck, the party's host.