An Oceano man was sentenced Thursday to 40 years to life in prison for second-degree murder for delivering a fatal punch outside a bar in 2014 that caused the victim to hit his head, fall into a coma and later die.
Ignacio Franco Palomar III, 40, who had prior convictions for assault, cruelty to a child, threatening witnesses and drug offenses, made no statement in court as his sentence was delivered after a judge denied his motion for a new trial.
The sentence means Palomar will be in his late 70s before he is eligible for parole. His attorney has indicated he will appeal the verdict.
In March, a jury found that Palomar punched Gregory Arthur Rustigian, 38, from behind on Oct. 2, 2014, after following Rustigian outside Ralph and Duane’s Bar in Arroyo Grande, causing a head injury that eventually led to Rustigian’s Nov. 7, 2014, death.
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Nearly four years after the incident and following several delays to Palomar’s sentencing hearing, Superior Court Judge Jacquelyn Duffy on Thursday sentenced Palomar to the mandatory 15 years to life for the second-degree murder conviction.
A second trial to determine whether Palomar’s prior convictions count as strikes under California’s Three Strikes Law resulted in the murder conviction counting as a second strike, doubling the sentence, with two other prior convictions adding five years apiece, for a total of 40 years.
He has already served nearly four years in County Jail while awaiting trial.
Palomar will also have to pay the victim’s family $10,000 plus an additional yet-to-be-determined amount in restitution.
During part of the sentencing hearing Wednesday, Deputy District Attorney Charles Blair read a statement from Rustigian’s father, Dennis Rustigian, which stated that the day they took their son off life support was the day “our hearts were left empty.” Rustigian described his son as a doting single father who leaves behind a young daughter.
“It’s sad to think that people like (Palomar) have no respect for life,” Dennis Rustigian wrote, adding that he prays Palomar lives “the rest of his life in jail for the pain he has inflicted on us all.”
Duffy — who presided over Palomar’s case from its early stages through the trial — noted that she had received many letters in support of Palomar. Saying the case “truly is a tragedy,” Duffy appeared to empathize with Palomar in saying that his actions appeared to be initiated by a family member he was with at Ralph and Duane’s Bar.
“I believe if you had to do it again, you wouldn’t do it again,” Duffy told Palomar. “However, your actions resulted in a 38-year-old man (losing his life). This is essentially the most serious felony you could have committed.”
When the hearing resumed Thursday, Duffy also noted that Palomar has been a “model prisoner” in County Jail and that she’s recommending to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials that he be housed at California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo near his family, which has attended his hearings in support over the last four years.
Jurors deliberated for less than a full day before finding Palomar guilty in March following the roughly three-week trial. During the 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. After 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.
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 said he believed instructions issued to the jury from Superior Court Judge Jacquelyn Duffy misstated or muddied the law applying to self-defense.
While those issues did not meet the bar required to grant a new trial, Duffy told Milan they would be legitimate issues to raise in an appeal.
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