A San Luis Obispo jury found that a Grover Beach man planned the murder of his roommate in 2016 and deliberately set the body on fire, rejecting the man’s claim of self defense.
Manuel Jesus Perez, 43, sat motionless Wednesday morning as a jury convicted him of first-degree murder and arson of an inhabited dwelling for the July 2016 killing of Joseph Charles Kienly IV, who had shared a house with Perez for several years in Grover Beach.
Testimony in the trial lasted a little more than a week and featured first responders, a District Attorney’s Office investigator and video of Perez’s interviews with officers. Jurors deliberated for a little less than four hours before returning their verdicts.
Following the verdict, Deputy District Attorney Michael Frye praised the jury as well as the investigative work done by officials in Grover Beach, San Luis Obispo, the Sheriff’s Office and in his own office.
Perez will be back in court Feb. 7, when a judge will determine how his two prior burglary convictions from 1995 will factor into his sentence. A first-degree murder conviction alone carries a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
Police and fire crews responded July 11, 2016, to a single-story apartment in the 100 block of North 13th Street for a reported fire, when they found Kienly’s charred body lying inside the kitchen. After fleeing on foot, Perez was found by police in San Luis Obispo and allegedly confessed to the killing, according to testimony from a March 2017 preliminary hearing.
Perez and Kienly had lived together in the house with two other housemates at the time of the murder.
Frye said in his opening statements that Perez and Kienly’s relationship became strained as Perez grew paranoid and came to believe that Kienly was antagonizing him. Perez told investigators that Kienly was purposefully trying to keep him awake by making noise and drilling holes in walls, according to video of his interviews.
But those offenses were in Perez’s head, Frye said; Kienly didn’t own a drill, nor were there holes in the walls.
Frye argued that leading up to the murder, Perez zip-tied two steak knives together and purchased lighter fluid at a local store, as well as charcoal and beer to make it appear that he was going to a BBQ.
After waiting for Kienly in the darkened living room on the morning of July 11, Frye said, Perez confronted Kienly and stabbed him several times, including fatal wounds to the chest. Frye said Perez then sprinkled Kienly’s body with lighter fluid and set it ablaze.
Despite initially pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, Perez ultimately withdrew that plea, instead claiming that he killed Kienly in self-defense. His attorney, Steven Rice, argued during trial that Kienly was known to carry weapons, and Perez foolishly brought a knife to confront Kienly about their living situation even though he didn’t plan to hurt him.
Rice argued that Perez acted unreasonably in his self-defense and should be found guilty of voluntary manslaughter. Rice did not contest the arson charge.
Outside the courtroom following the verdict, the jury foreperson — who asked not to be named for this article — said the prosecution presented a clear and concise case against Perez, and that 11 jurors began deliberations in favor of convicting on the murder charge.
Describing the process as respectful, the foreperson said the jury spent the remaining few hours re-reading the law and focusing on definitions of “intent” and “state of mind” before reaching agreement.
Despite the verdict, Rice said he felt jurors listened carefully to the evidence.
“It’s apparent the hard work they put into their deliberations,” Rice said. “I still maintain it was a case of imperfect self-defense, but they didn’t see it that way.”