Jury ponders fate of man accused of killing Merced restaurateur

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comSeptember 5, 2013 

— Jurors have begun deliberations in the trial of a 22-year-old man accused of murdering the owner of a Merced Filipino restaurant.

Evan Lovett is accused of killing Benjamin Munsayac, 49, the evening of Feb. 20, 2012. According to the prosecution, he strangled Munsayac and smashed the victim's skull with the claw end of a hammer.

Attorneys presented closing arguments Thursday. Deputy District Attorney Steven Slocum characterized the killing as a robbery that turned into murder. The defendant knew Munsayac because the victim employed Lovett in a caregiving business from December to January 2012.

Slocum said Lovett went to the victim's 128 E. Main St. home, entered his bedroom and strangled him.

The victim fought for his life, but to no avail, as Lovett picked up a hammer and struck him in the head, and Slocum said the victim had wounds on his arms, from trying to protect himself from the blows.

During Slocum's closing argument, jurors viewed an autopsy photo which showed two holes in the back of Munsayac's head, where he'd been struck with the hammer's claw end.

"Every time (Lovett) threw one of those blows, that was a decision the defendant made," Slocum told jurors.

He said the defendant left in the victim's Chrysler after the murder. Merced police responded to a crash a few hours later and spotted the victim's abandoned car in the 800 block of East Childs Avenue. Lovett was found hiding in the bushes nearby with blood on his clothes.

Tests confirmed Lovett was covered in the victim's blood — so much that it had soaked through some parts of the clothing. Lovett's DNA was found under the victim's fingernails, the prosecutor said.

Slocum said Lovett's own words implicate him in the murder.

During a conversation with his mother, Lovett said he felt the victim had "wronged" him because he was owed money, and he'd planned to take Munsayac's car and go to Los Angeles to "get his head straight."

When Lovett's mother called the incident "an hour of rage," he told her the crime took "45 minutes," Slocum told jurors.

The prosecutor said Merced police also never told Lovett the murder weapon was a hammer. However, during the conversation with his mother, Lovett claimed he was with someone else who had killed Munsayac — and that person used a hammer to commit the crime.

When Merced police asked Lovett about the blood on his clothes on the night of his arrest, he claimed he was standing in a field and observed a car crash. Lovett claimed he saw three men flee the victim's Chrysler and one of them approached, pulling a gun.

Lovett claimed he was forced to put on the gunman's bloody clothes, saying the gunman also wiped blood on him.

William Davis, Lovett's attorney, acknowledged during his closing argument that there was DNA under Munsayac's fingernails that came from an unidentified person.

If another person was involved in the murder, Davis said it creates reasonable doubt as to his client's involvement. "Who knows what evidence may have been on that person, and what their role was?" David told jurors."

"We don't know (Lovett's) role in the death of Mr. Munsayac because we know there was another person present," Davis said.

He also said Lovett had been drinking the night of the homicide, arguing that being intoxicated may have impacted his client's judgment.

The defense attorney also dismissed statements his client made to his family and police, saying the statements were inconsistent and unreliable.

Slocum responded to Davis' claim of another person being involved in the murder by saying the DNA from the unidentified person could have come from any number of places.

"We have contact with other people every day," Slocum said. "That doesn't mean someone else was in the room during the murder."

In addition to being a caregiver, Munsayac was known locally as co-owner of Traditional Filipino Cuisine in the Raley's Shopping Center.

Lovett's charged with first-degree murder, which includes specials circumstances of committing a robbery during a murder, committing a burglary during a murder and committing murder by means of torture.

He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole, if convicted.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

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