Wozniak jury won’t hear about murder victim’s arrest in 2002 slaying, judge rules

Defense attorneys for convicted double murderer Daniel Wozniak won’t be allowed to tell jurors that one of Wozniak’s victims was arrested in a murder case years earlier, an Orange County Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday.

Wozniak’s defense team was hoping to reveal Sam Herr’s arrest before jurors decide whether Wozniak, a 31-year-old community theater actor from Costa Mesa, should be sentenced to death for the slayings of Herr, 26, and his friend Juri “Julie” Kibuishi, 23, in May 2010.

Wozniak was found guilty last month of two counts of murder. Since Monday, jurors have been hearing the prosecutors’ case that he deserves death for the crimes instead of the other possible option, life in prison without parole.

On Wednesday, Wozniak’s public defender Scott Sanders asked Judge John Conley for permission to call witnesses who would testify about Herr’s arrest in connection with a gang-related killing in Los Angeles County 14 years ago. Ultimately, a jury acquitted Herr of murder and manslaughter charges.

According to Los Angeles County court documents, prosecutors believed that Herr and 17 members of the “Brown Familia” gang ambushed a rival gang member in a Santa Clarita parking lot on Jan. 16, 2002.

Prosecutors alleged that the group beat 19-year-old Byron Benito with crowbars and stabbed him 33 times, eventually striking a fatal blow by puncturing a lung.

Benito allegedly was targeted for revenge after a Brown Familia gang member was found slain a day earlier, according to court documents.

Though there was no evidence connecting Benito to that slaying, the Brown Familia crew selected him to die because he belonged to a rival gang and was therefore the “enemy,” prosecutors wrote.

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office argued that Herr was Benito’s close friend and was selected to lure him to the site of the ambush, according to court filings at the time.

Sheriff’s deputies arrested Herr the day of Benito’s killing, and while they questioned him, “Herr gave detailed statements that clearly incriminated him in the brutal murder of his friend,” according to a district attorney’s office filing.

Sanders said jurors deciding Wozniak’s fate should hear that because witnesses so far have presented Herr as a loyal friend, loving son and heroic veteran who served in Afghanistan.

Prosecutor Matt Murphy countered that he has intentionally limited witnesses’ descriptions of Herr to avoid presenting a possibly misleading picture to jurors that would open the door to rebuttal from the defense.

“Sam was a war hero,” said Murphy, who added that he avoided asking Herr’s friends and family about the multiple times Herr risked his life in a war zone. “I didn’t go into any of that stuff.”

Conley agreed that prosecutors had not presented a dishonestly flattering picture of Herr. Beyond that, he noted, Herr was acquitted in Benito’s slaying.

But Sanders argued that the decision in Herr’s case was based on a technicality.

Herr’s defense attorneys had persuaded a judge to throw out the allegedly incriminating statements. Herr, they argued, was arrested under false pretenses, so anything he said in custody should be inadmissible.

In a series of motions, the attorneys alleged that deputies pulled Herr over during a traffic stop with the intent of questioning him about the killing because they thought he might have been the last person to see Benito alive.

When deputies searched Herr’s car, they found a handful of children’s scooters in the trunk and arrested Herr on suspicion of possession of stolen property.

While he was in custody, deputies interrogated Herr about Benito’s death, according to court documents.

Later, they discovered that the scooters in Herr’s car were not stolen, Herr’s attorneys wrote. As Herr told deputies during the traffic stop, they belonged to kids in the neighborhood who would ride in his car and forget them in the trunk.

Herr’s attorneys argued that the scooters were merely an excuse for deputies to get him into custody so they could grill him about the killing.

"[Herr] was going to be arrested regardless of any explanation he gave about the scooters,” the defense wrote.

Beyond getting Herr’s allegedly incriminating statements thrown out, his attorneys argued that he never intended for Benito to be killed but he was pushed to participate in the plot by one of the gang members.

“Defendant Herr did not know the victim would be killed,” the defense wrote. “Defendant Herr did not participate in the victim’s beating and, in fact, defendant Herr was injured himself during the killing of Benito.”

One witness said Herr was punched when he tried to stop the attack. He told investigators that Herr attempted to get Benito back in the car so they could drive off, according to court documents.

Herr was found not guilty in May 2004.

“Yes, there is some damning evidence in respect to Mr. Herr,” Conley said before denying Sanders’ motion Wednesday. “But I think we have to respect the jury’s verdict and not open that Pandora’s box.”

Sometime after his acquittal, Herr joined the Army.

He had completed his service and was attending Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa when Wozniak, his neighbor, decided to kill him in May 2010, according to Murphy.

Wozniak targeted Herr for money, Murphy said during Wozniak’s trial, which lasted for about a week in December.

Herr had saved thousands of dollars from his time on a remote Army base in Afghanistan, and Wozniak was desperate for cash to cover his rent and fund his wedding, which was scheduled for the following week, Murphy said.

After somehow getting Herr’s ATM PIN so he could withdraw money from the veteran’s bank account, Wozniak shot Herr to death in a Los Alamitos theater where Wozniak acted, Murphy said.

In a cover-up attempt, Wozniak used Herr’s phone to lure Kibuishi to Herr’s apartment, where Wozniak shot her and staged her body to look as though Herr had sexually assaulted her before fleeing, according to prosecutors.

To finish the gruesome plan, Wozniak returned to Herr’s body and dismembered it before dumping the head and other parts in a Long Beach park, Murphy told jurors.

Days after the killings, ATM withdrawals from Herr’s account led investigators to Wozniak.

After a series of interviews with police, Wozniak confessed on video to both slayings.