Closing arguments in 2009 Laguna murder case

A prosecutor gave closing arguments Wednesday claiming that a 23-year-old Lake Forest man accused of murdering a Laguna Beach man in his apartment in 2009 repeatedly lied to police investigators and was a knowing participant in the crime.

Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Matt Murphy portrayed Matthew Thomas Dragna as someone who couldn't keep his story straight regarding the October 2009 death of 40-year-old Damon Nicholson, a former Hotel Laguna catering manager.

"Besides his name, Matthew Dragna lied to [Laguna Beach] police about every single thing he was asked about," Murphy said during closing arguments inside the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana.

Murphy based his argument on statements Dragna made to police during questioning after his arrest in November 2009.

Nicholson was found slumped over a couch in his living room on Dolphin Way with a red oval wound above his left hip and a fractured skull, according to the prosecution.

The district attorney charged both Dragna and 25-year-old Jacob Quintanilla, with one felony count each of special circumstances murder during the commission of a robbery.

The prosecution alleges Dragna and Quintanilla drove together to Nicholson's apartment, bludgeoned him to death, then stole items from Nicholson's apartment, including a laptop and cell phone.

The men are being tried separately.

Even if Dragna didn't strike Nicholson with a bat, he shares responsibility for the murder for driving with Quintanilla to Nicholson's home, according to Murphy.

" 'I've never been there [to Nicholson's home],'" Murphy said, relaying what Dragna told investigators.

"That's a lie, we have your DNA," Murphy said. Dragna and another man allegedly went to Nicholson's for sex the night before the murder.

Earlier in the trial, forensic scientist Felicia Burke testified that DNA found on a trash can lid from Nicholson's apartment from someone other than Dragna would be more rare than one-in-a-trillion individuals.

"Quintanilla had no contact with Nicholson before the murder, no witnesses, no emails, no cell phone data, no phone calls," Murphy said. "The connection in reality is sitting right there" [referring to Dragna sitting next to his attorney Frank Bittar.]

Dragna's testimony regarding the alleged murder weapon — a baseball bat — was also inconsistent, according to Murphy.

" 'I didn't know he had [the bat] on him; I didn't see the bat until after he was in the car with it,'" Murphy said relaying what Dragna told detectives.

Murphy quickly called the story into question.

"How do you drive all the way to Laguna Beach, watch [Quintanilla] get out of the car and not see he had a bat?" Murphy rhetorically asked jurors. "If he sees a bat beforehand, there's no way he can escape liability to felony murder.

"[Dragna] left the Timbers Apartments [in Lake Forest] with Jacob and an aluminum baseball bat, which was long enough that you can't put it up a sleeve and can't put a coat on and get behind the wheel of a car.

Bittar disputed Murphy's claims about Dragna and the size of the murder weapon, using corroborating statements from witnesses during sworn testimony.

"Just because you lie about certain things doesn't make you a liar about everything," Bittar said during his closing argument. "[Dragna] said he never saw [Nicholson's face]. [A witness] verifies. [Dragna] said he had no knowledge of a computer in Nicholson's apartment. [A witness] verified that it was so dark [in the apartment]."

A witness testified he and Dragna had sex with Nicholson the night before the murder and said Nicholson kept his apartment very dark, in complete darkness, according to Bittar.

If Nicholson and Dragna enjoyed sex the night before, why would Dragna want to kill him, Bittar asked jurors.

As for the alleged murder weapon, Dragna's testimony aligned with another witness, Orange County Coroner's Chief Forensic Pathologist Tony Juguilon, who called the weapon a hard cylindrical object, not a bat, according to Bittar.

"[Juguilon] never told us it was a bat," Bittar said.

"Dragna never touched Nicholson," Bittar said.

"What is a strong case here? DNA? Really?" Bittar said. "So you steal, does that make you a robber? The attempt to sell property [after the murder], is that what it takes to convict someone of a special circumstances murder? That is not a strong case. That case stinks."

Judge James Stotler asked Dragna if he wanted to testify, but he declined.

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