Salih Abdul-Haqq Zaid, the Thatcher man convicted of manslaughter for a fatal shooting outside a local bar in 2017, has been granted a new trial by the Arizona Court of Appeals, which ruled Monday that the jury should have heard about the victim’s reputation for violence.
“Here, doubt existed about who was the first aggressor,” the appellate opinion reads. “Because the trial court erred in precluding Zaid from presenting reputation and opinion evidence of the victim’s violence character, and we cannot conclude that the error was harmless, we reverse Zaid’s convictions and sentences and remand for a new trial.”
Zaid, 42, was initially charged with first-degree murder along with several other felonies for the April 26, 2017 death of Jared Michael Garcia which occurred after the men had been drinking with others at the Bull Pen Bar. He put forth a self-defense argument at trial, but the jury convicted the former flight medic of manslaughter, as well as aggravated assault, endangerment, disorderly conduct, and discharge of a firearm in city limits.
He was sentenced in May 2018 to several prison terms, the longest being 15 years on the manslaughter charge. The trial judge ordered the terms be served concurrently, meaning once manslaughter term is complete Zaid will have served all of his time.
During the investigation, witnesses made statements that Garcia had a reputation for violence. However, the trial judge precluded that information from being presented to the jury, calling it “a waste of time” and worrying that the jury would think Garcia “got what he deserved.”
Jurors did hear testimony that during a night of drinking, Garcia, who was reportedly 6’ 3” and about 250 pounds, slapped or punched Zaid, who stands 5’ 7”, during a “racially charged” conversation. Witnesses testified the two men later seemed to get along fine before shaking hands when Zaid left.
The jurors also saw video from various surveillance cameras around Thatcher which showed Zaid returned to the bar 20 minutes later after driving to his residence. Zaid went inside then a few minutes later he comes out followed by Garcia and two other men who had been drinking with them earlier.
The prosecution contended Zaid instigated a new confrontation by calling Garcia over to Zaid’s truck before firing an AK47 rifle without justification. One round struck Garcia in the torso from a distance of at least three away, and he died at a local hospital.
But jurors who had to decide whether Zaid or Garcia instigated the second confrontation never heard from witnesses -including some for the prosecution- about Garcia’s violent character.
Elizabeth Hale, Zaid’s court-appointed appellate attorney, argued to the court of appeals that the trial judge erred in not allowing the jury to hear testimony in support of Zaid’s contention that the fatal shooting stemmed from an act of self-defense. The judges agreed in a 3-0 ruling.
“Allowing Zaid to support his version of events via evidence of the victim’s violent character would not have been, as the (trial) court characterized it in precluding it under Rule 403, a ‘waste of time regarding undisputed facts,’” the appellate opinion states.
It is expected that the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and the Graham County Attorney will seek a review of the appellate decision from the Arizona Supreme Court. As a result, nothing changes in Zaid’s case until the justices issue their own opinion or formally decline to hear the case.
If Tuesday’s 3-0 decision isn’t taken before the supreme court then in 30 days the case goes back to Graham County Superior Court for the setting of a new trial date.
Court records show Zaid rejected a plea deal offered by the Graham County Attorney’s Office prior to his 2018 trial which would have guaranteed a lesser sentence than what the trial judge imposed.
If he is brought to trial again, a new jury could vote to acquit him, or find him guilty again of manslaughter. The jury could also end up convicting Zaid of second-degree murder, but because the first jury returned a not guilty verdict of first-degree murder Zaid cannot be tried again on that charge.