MERCED — The fate of a 63-year-old man accused of a fatal Gustine stabbing last year is in the hands of a Merced County jury.
The primary question facing jurors is whether the crime was voluntary manslaughter or murder.
Family members of Robert Smith bowed their heads and wept Wednesday as Chief Deputy District Attorney Harold Nutt recounted during closing arguments how Adam John Sinegal stabbed the victim five times with a folding knife.
The victim's jugular vein was sliced during the attack, and he was stabbed in the torso.
A photograph of Smith smiling with two children by his side was shown on a theater screen as Nutt spoke to jurors.
Sinegal has children with the victim's stepdaughter, Javeena Lowery. Lowery and Sinegal were living in Smith's home with several children at the time of the stabbing.
Prosecutors maintain Sinegal stabbed Smith out of anger as Lowery and the victim were having an argument. Witnesses testified that children in the house had been quarrelling over dominoes, and Smith and Lowery began arguing about how they should be disciplined.
Sinegal's attorney Caleb Hegland told jurors during closing arguments Wednesday that although his client admits to killing Smith, he only did so because he saw the victim swinging his arms as if he were attacking Lowery with a weapon.
Hegland told jurors while his client is guilty of voluntary manslaughter, he's not a murderer. Sinegal would face life behind bars if convicted of murder, but a voluntary manslaughter conviction would likely bring about a dozen years in prison.
Hegland called his client a "peaceful" man who only resorted to violence because he thought Lowery was being harmed. "Adam acted in a panic because he thought Javeena was being beaten and her life was in danger," Hegland said.
Lowery testified, however, that Smith never attacked her during the argument, nor did he wield a weapon.
Hegland pointed out that after the killing, Sinegal folded up his knife and waited for police to arrive. He said his client has maintained the same story since his arrest.
The defense attorney said Sinegal's actions after the killing were not that of a cold-blooded murderer, but a person who had mistakenly stabbed someone and "is now going to tell the police what happened."
Nutt disagreed with Hegland's assessment, saying the defendant was driven to kill purely by anger.
Nutt told jurors that at the very least, the crime is second-degree murder -- but certainly not voluntary manslaughter. "Anger causes people to overreact and do things they shouldn't do. And that's what happened with this defendant," Nutt told jurors.
He said Sinegal had made a statement to police, saying that he was going to 'do something' to Smith, if he put his hands on his children.
The prosecutor said Sinegal made up his story of coming to Lowery's aid as an excuse. Nutt said the defendant stabbed Smith out of anger and frustration -- "without provocation (and) without warning."
Sinegal is charged with first-degree murder with an enhancement for use of a deadly weapon. He's also charged with assault with a deadly weapon over accusations that he went after Lowery's daughter after killing Smith.
Sinegal is being held at the Merced County Jail. His bail is set at $1.1 million.
City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.