The trial of a 22-year-old man accused of killing the owner of a Merced Filipino restaurant began Wednesday in Merced County Superior Court with the prosecution presenting its opening statement to jurors.
Evan Lovett is accused of bludgeoning Benjamin Munsayac, 49, to death on Feb. 20, 2012. Lovett has pleaded not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder with special circumstances.
The prosecution alleges Lovett killed Munsayac with the claw end of a hammer because the victim owed him money.
Deputy District Attorney Steven Slocum, the prosecutor in the case, presented jurors Wednesday with an overview of some of the key evidence against Lovett.
Lovett's attorney, William Davis, told Judge Ronald Hansen he would reserve his opening statement until later during the trial.
Davis on Wednesday said he didn't want to speak in depth about the trial, saying he'll wait to see the witnesses for the prosecution. "There are some unreliable people involved," Davis said. "And we'll respond to it."
The evidence outlined by the prosecution includes some scratches on Lovett's face when he was arrested by Merced police. Slocum said an expert from the Department of Justice is expected to testify that DNA found under the victim's fingernails matched Lovett's DNA profile.
Slocum also said the defendant's clothes were covered in blood the evening he was arrested. Those clothes were sent to a Department of Justice lab in Ripon, and Slocum said an expert will testify the blood matches Munsayac's.
Munsayac was co-owner of Traditional Filipino Cuisine in the Raley's Shopping Center, and he also had a business as a caregiver. He employed the defendant in his caregiving business from December 2011 until January 2012, according to Slocum.
Lovett told police during interviews he felt Munsayac had owed him money. Slocum said the prosecution believes Lovett entered Munsayac's East Main Street home and then strangled and beat him with a hammer "until he finally smashed Benjamin's skull and killed him," Slocum said.
On Wednesday, Slocum also showed jurors a photograph of Munsayac's body as it was found, lying bloodied in the closet area of the home, his eyes wide open.
Police claim that after the killing the defendant stole Munsayac's Chrysler Pacifica and fled the home. He drove to the Gateway Motel on 16th Street. At the motel, he told some acquittances that he'd killed someone and wanted to flee to Mexico, Slocum said.
According to police, Lovett left the motel in the victim's car, but didn't get far, crashing into a canal near Delong Street and Childs Avenue.
He fled the crash scene, the prosecution said, but was spotted by a Merced police officer while trying to cross the southbound lanes of Highway 99. Police found him hiding in oleander bushes.
When Detective Chris Russell asked Lovett about the blood on his clothes, the defendant claimed he was standing in a field and observed a car crash. Lovett claimed he saw three men flee the car and one of them approached pulling a gun.
Lovett claims he was forced to trade clothes with the gunman. "And while he was changing clothes, this man was wiping blood all over the defendant," Slocum said.
Slocum said the defendant also gave that explanation to his mother during a telephone call. When she told her son that he was "in a lot of trouble," Lovett claimed she'd "driven him" to commit the crime.
During another phone call, Slocum said, the defendant also tried to say someone else killed Munsayac, and that he'd only taken the victim's car keys.
The special circumstances attached to the murder charge include committing a robbery during a murder, committing a burglary during a murder and committing murder by means of torture.
The trial is expected to take two weeks. Lovett remains at the Merced County Jail. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life without parole.