A 22-year-old man accused of killing restaurateur Benjamin Munsayac was convicted of first-degree murder by a Merced County jury Tuesday morning.
Evan Lovett seemed unfazed after jurors found him guilty on the murder charge with two special circumstances: committing a robbery during a murder and committing a burglary during a murder. Jurors were split on a third special circumstance for torture. Lovett faces a sentence of life without the possibility of parole in prison.
Lovett is scheduled to be sentenced by Judge Ronald Hansen on Oct. 8.
Munsayac, 49, was the owner of Traditional Filipino Cuisine restaurant in Merced. He also owned a caregiving business, where he employed Lovett from December until January 2012. Prosecutors argued Lovett killed Munsayac during a robbery the evening of Feb. 20, 2012. Musayac had been strangled and beaten with the claw side of a hammer inside his 128 E. Main St. home.
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Jurors began deliberations Friday in the trial, which lasted about two weeks. Deputy District Attorney Steven Slocum, who prosecuted the case, said the physical evidence against Lovett was strong. A Department of Justice lab determined blood on Lovett’s clothes belonged to Munsayac, and Lovett’s DNA was also found under the victim’s fingernails.
In addition, during trial the prosecution also entered statements into evidence that Lovett made over the telephone to his mother after his arrest. During a conversation with his mother, Lovett said he felt the victim had “wronged” him, claiming he was owed money. Lovett told his mother he’d planned to take Munsayac’s car and go to Los Angeles to “get his head straight.”
Slocum said the verdict was just, saying he was pleased jurors took their job seriously. “It’s satisfying to know that the (victim’s) family can have some closure now after what was a very violent death of a loved one,” Slocum said.
Bianca Munsayac, the victim’s 19-year-old daughter, said she was extremely relieved by the verdict. “Justice has been served for my father, and on behalf of my family, I just really want to thank everybody who came forward and testified on behalf of my father. I am just really relieved that it’s over,” she said.
Bianca Munsayac said her father never had the chance to see her graduate from high school. She described him as a “really good guy” who was “the life of every party,” in addition to being a well-traveled entrepreneur who moved to Merced in 2005.
Prior to coming here, Benjamin Munsayac worked as an accountant and at care facilities. “You would always find him singing. If you ever visited his restaurant, you would always hear him in the back singing as well,” Bianca Munsayac said. “He was always a hardworking individual, very intelligent.”
William Davis, Lovett’s attorney, argued during trial his client had been drinking the night of the homicide, saying that being intoxicated may have impacted his client’s judgment. Davis said DNA from an unidentified person was also found under the victim’s fingernails. Still, Davis said, the verdict wasn’t unexpected.
“We were aware of the circumstances. We were aware of Mr. Lovett’s statements, which are obviously very damaging. He clearly was involved to some extent in this event. I don’t think he denies that. The question was his level of culpability, based on his intoxication,” Davis said. “As you heard from the evidence, there’s another player out there who’s not been charged. But that’s not necessarily the prosecution’s fault.”
Slocum dismissed the notion that anyone other than Lovett was involved in Munsyac’s murder. Slocum said Merced police checked out a name provided by Lovett himself, with regard to a possible second suspect. Slocum said that person’s DNA didn’t match the DNA profile found under Munsayac’s fingernails, and there’s no evidence that person was at the murder scene. “There is literally no evidence (of a second suspect) other than the defendant’s statement that someone else killed Benjamin,” Slocum said.
Prosecutors believe Lovett went to the victim’s 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. Lovett 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.