Crime

Oceano man found guilty of murder in bar fight. Now he's facing 30 years in prison

Ignacio Franco Palomar, 39, of Oceano, was convicted of second-degree murder on March 22 for the death of 38-year-old Gregory Arthur Rustigian outside Ralph and Duane’s Bar in Arroyo Grande in October 2014.
Ignacio Franco Palomar, 39, of Oceano, was convicted of second-degree murder on March 22 for the death of 38-year-old Gregory Arthur Rustigian outside Ralph and Duane’s Bar in Arroyo Grande in October 2014. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

An Oceano man who's been held in San Luis Obispo County Jail since 2014 was convicted Thursday of second-degree murder for the death of another man following a fight outside an Arroyo Grande bar.

Ignacio Franco Palomar could face about 30 years to life in state prison after a judge considers his two prior felony convictions at a Three Strikes hearing Friday.

His attorney — who argued Palomar punched the victim in self-defense — said he will file an appeal.

Palomar, 39, was arrested a few weeks after he and 38-year-old Gregory Arthur Rustigian had some sort of physical altercation outside of Ralph & Duane's Bar in Arroyo Grande on Oct. 2, 2014. At some point during the exchange, Rustigian received a blow to the head and fell to the ground, most likely hitting his head.

Rustigian, of Grover Beach, went into a coma and later died in November 2014.

During the roughly three-week trial, Deputy District Attorney Charles Blair acknowledged that Rustigian, who was heavily intoxicated, likely made offensive remarks to a female relative of Palomar's at the bar.

While there was no footage of the actual fight outside, surveillance video from inside the bar showed what appeared to be a confrontation between Rustigian and Palomar's relative. A short time later, Rustigian and another man were seen leaving the bar; Palomar was seen exiting the bar shortly after, before returning inside and exiting once more accompanied by a small group that included his relative.

Blair argued that Palomar's posture and actions as he was last seen leaving the establishment showed his violent intent; a witness testified that Palomar said "he is going to f*** homeboy up."

But defense attorney Trace Milan said the prosecution failed to prove Palomar took the first swing, and if Rustigian threw the first punch, then Palomar's actions were justified in self-defense, he said.

Milan also argued that Rustigian was drunk and instigated trouble, and a witness testified that Rustigian was making racist remarks.

There were also gaps in evidence: Milan said that no autopsy was performed, and Arroyo Grande police didn't take crime-scene photographs or collect key pieces of evidence.

Jurors deliberated for almost a full day before finding Palomar guilty.

Following the verdict, Milan said he believed instructions issued to the jury from Superior Court Judge Jacquelyn Duffy misstated or muddied the law applying to self-defense. Milan said the jury was mistakenly compelled to find that self-defense didn't apply because Palomar followed Rustigian outside the bar after he had left.

He said Duffy modified the jury instructions to clarify the law Thursday afternoon, but the new instructions were also confusing. Court records show that a verdict was reached within about a half hour of the jury receiving the new instructions.

"It's really heartbreaking because other than that, the judge ran a great trial, (Blair) ran a great trial, but that threw it all down the drain," Milan said. "I think my client is innocent."

Milan said he would file an appeal on behalf of Palomar on Thursday night.

A request for comment from the District Attorney's Office was referred to a news release.

A second-degree murder conviction results in a sentence of 15 years to life, but if a judge rules Friday that Palomar's two previous felony convictions for making criminal threats apply, the sentence could be doubled, Milan said.

A sentencing hearing will be scheduled following Friday's hearing.

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