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Jury deliberations begin in Atwater machete homicide case

Antonio Cruz Guzman killed Joseph McDonald with a machete last year during a barbecue in Atwater, attorneys on both sides of the case acknowledged Tuesday.

While the prosecution believes the killing was a choice, Guzman’s attorney claims it was self-defense.

Deputy Public Defender Kim Boortz on Tuesday said her client was protecting himself from McDonald on April 28 outside an Atwater home. “He did what he had to do that day and acted in self-defense,” Boortz said.

Deputy District Attorney Thomas Min said Guzman attacked an unarmed 61-year-old man in cold blood, leaving 14 deep gashes on the victim’s neck, arms and hands. “And I submit to you that he was trying to chop the victim’s head off,” Min said.

A Merced County Superior Court jury of eight men and four woman must now determine which argument they believe. Deliberations began Tuesday in the case against the 31-year-old construction worker, following a four-day trial before Judge Marc A. Garcia. Jurors went home Tuesday without reaching a verdict. Deliberations resume today.

The violence was sparked during a barbecue party on April 28 at a Valencia Way home, according to trial testimony.

Three witnesses said both men were drinking and arguing for several hours leading up to the incident. Two people, including Guzman, said McDonald made a remark about Guzman’s boots and tempers flared. Prosecutors said both men began walking to the back house, apparently to fight, but Guzman stopped at his truck to retrieve the machete.

Guzman said he never intended to fight, and stopped at his truck, hoping McDonald would ignore him and walk away. He said McDonald punched him in the shoulder and threatened to kill him. McDonald kept throwing punches, and Guzman used the machete to block the blows, the defendant claimed.

Under questioning from the prosecutor, Guzman repeatedly said he was nearly paralyzed with fear, believed McDonald intended to kill him and only swung the blade to keep McDonald at bay. He also said the incident happened so quickly he could not remember exactly how the fatal neck blow was struck.

Boortz called Guzman “calm, peaceful and nonviolent” – but described McDonald as a dangerous drunk with a history of violence. McDonald’s blood-alcohol level was measured at .24 percent the day he was killed.

One woman testified Tuesday about an incident from 2010, alleging McDonald attacked her at home after a day of drinking. “Antonio believed he was in imminent danger,” Boortz said.

Boortz asked the jury to find Guzman not guilty of murder and said, at most , it was a case of voluntary manslaughter.

On the other side of the aisle, the prosecutor asked jurors to convict Guzman of first-degree premeditated murder. Min suggested to jurors Guzman had fabricated his self-defense story to avoid prison. The prosecutor said Guzman was angry with McDonald for making fun of his boots and “took it way too far.”

“He (McDonald) probably did say mean things about the defendant’s boots,” Min said. “Making fun of someone’s boots is not adequate provocation.”

Min noted no other witnesses ever heard McDonald threaten to kill Guzman. Witnesses testified during trial that Guzman attacked McDonald and said McDonald never threw a punch.

The pathologist in the case, Dr. Mark Super, described McDonald’s injuries as “defensive wounds,” Min said.

Min also said Guzman could have simply walked away, locked himself in his truck, driven away or called the police, but he stayed and killed McDonald.

On the witness stand, Guzman claimed he did not know a machete could kill a person until it was too late. He also said he never noticed the substantial amount of blood coming from the victim and all over the ground.

Min said those claims were not believable.

Min told the jury it was “not reasonable” to believe that McDonald, “an unarmed 61-year-old man with a bad heart, a bad liver and bad kidneys” would keep attacking someone who was swinging a machete.

Guzman remains in custody at the Merced County Jail without bail.