Opening statements began Tuesday in the murder trial of a Paso Robles man accused of shooting to death his mother’s live-in boyfriend in a dark living room following an early-morning argument between the boyfriend and the man’s mother.
John Steven Danner is accused of shooting 47-year-old Billy Don Law 13 times with a .45-caliber Glock-styled semi-automatic handgun after Law and Danner’s mother, Christine Ruda, began arguing on Feb. 7.
Danner, 23, was arrested after taking Ruda to Twin Cities Community Hospital in Templeton for a gunshot wound to the arm that she suffered in the incident.
He pleaded not guilty to a single charge of murder in February, claiming that he acted in his and his mother’s defense.
In his opening statements Tuesday, Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham said Danner and Law had a rocky relationship that culminated in Law knocking out one of Danner’s teeth during a confrontation about a month before the shooting.
In that incident, Law cut his right hand on Danner’s tooth. The wound became infected and required surgery, the prosecutor said, limiting Law’s use of his dominant hand.
“Mr. Danner would later say that he was not afraid of Mr. Law, but he was not happy about what had happened,” Cunningham said.
He said that in the early hours of Feb. 7, Danner and a friend, Robert Little, who also lived at the house, were burning garbage in a barrel in the backyard of the home, off Klau Mine Road in the rural outskirts of Paso Robles.
The home had no electricity, and Danner had been previously warned by Law against burning candles.
Cunningham said Law yelled at Danner through a bathroom window and
then started to argue with Ruda.
Overhearing the argument, Danner went into his bedroom and retrieved two handguns from a safe, Cunningham said. Armed with his .45 and a .357 revolver that he later said he was taking to Little in case of trouble, Danner confronted Law, who was standing naked in the darkness outside Ruda’s room.
Cunningham said Danner made a statement to the effect of, “Leave her alone or I’ll shoot your ass.”
“He then racked a round into the chamber and began firing,” Cunningham said, adding that evidence would show that Danner shot Law between four and five times after Law hit the floor.
Several of Law’s family members and supporters in the courtroom began sobbing at the sight of a photograph of his lifeless body lying naked in a pool of blood on the floor of the home, his torso, chest and head peppered with gunshot wounds.
Cunningham said many of the wounds were serious but that the likely fatal shot passed through his chin and into his chest, hitting a number of vital organs.
When Danner was asked why he shot Law more than once, Cunningham said he responded: “I was just trying to make sure it was done.”
“He did his best to kill (Law) because he used all 13 rounds at his disposal,” Cunningham told jurors.
Defense attorney Dave Vogel deferred his opening statements until after the prosecution rests its case, a common practice in serious criminal trials.
On the first day of testimony, jurors heard from three sheriff’s deputies.
Deputy Gregory Smith, who was the first to talk to Danner at the hospital, said Danner appeared “extremely nervous,” was “visibly shaking” and appeared to be under the influence of methamphetamine before he admitted to shooting his mother and her boyfriend.
When Smith asked about Law, Danner implied he was dead.
“He said he was a good shot and he knew all the bullets had gone into Bill,” Smith said.
Under Vogel’s cross-examination, Smith testified that he did not initially advise Danner of his Miranda rights while the two were talking, saying that Danner was not technically in custody at that time.
“If Mr. Danner had started walking out the door then, would you have let him leave?” Vogel asked.
“Probably not, sir,” Smith answered.
Once he understood the situation, Smith said, he ceased his questioning until investigators arrived.
Smith said that after Danner’s arrest, Danner made a spontaneous statement that both he and Law deserved to die.
Sheriff’s Deputy David Smith, who was among the first to respond to the home, testified that Law was not dead but had a weak pulse before expiring as medics arrived.
The trial is expected to last at least two weeks and will include testimony from Ruda, Little, medical doctors and forensics specialists.
Cunningham said he expects to call witnesses who will testify that Law was never violent toward Ruda in their roughly two years together.
He said he anticipates that Ruda and Little will both testify that Danner was acting in self-defense, despite their earlier statements to officers that Law was not being threatening that night.
Ruda told The Tribune at a previous court hearing that Danner “saved (her) life.”
Testimony is scheduled to continue Wednesday.