David Anthony Strouth, 36, told the jury that he lawfully killed a man in self-defense, disputing the prosecution’s assertion of first-degree murder, with an added allegation of lying in wait. The jury of eight women and four men heard evidence for two weeks and then went into deliberations late yesterday, Monday, October 2.
Strouth admits stabbing Brad Garner, 49, to death in the garage of his rented home on Santa Rosa Street in Oceanside. Garner had met Strouth about three weeks prior, and the older man befriended a troubled Strouth in an effort to help him, according to all accounts. Both men were found at the bloody scene by police and neighbors the night of April 24, 2015.
Defense attorney Sloane Ostbye told the jury this was a case of self-defense and that after Strouth stabbed his new friend, “He didn’t run, he stayed.” Witnesses who responded to the scene described Strouth at the back of the dark garage, slashing his own neck and arms, with shards of glass. The jury was shown graphic photos of Strouth laying on a gurney at hospital, with jagged red gashes in his neck.
When Strouth took the witness box in his own defense, he said that Garner suddenly leaped from a chair in which he had been sitting, and the clattering, metallic noise of the moving chair reminded him of “an AK.” Strouth said that Garner had suddenly grabbed him either by the shirt or by the neck (details in Strouth’s description seemed to change over time).
Strouth has been in custody two and half years, and during that time he spoke to different people about what happened that night. The defendant is a former Marine who made two tours of duty in Iraq, and he has been diagnosed as having PTSD by three mental health experts. The deceased man was also said to be a former Marine…or the defendant believed that; his actual military status was not made clear.
Defense attorney Ostbye told the jury that she brought up the issue of post traumatic stress disorder because it explained why the violent conflict occurred. “It is not an excuse, it is not a defense.” Several mental health experts testified that a person with PTSD has heightened awareness; Strouth told the jury from the witness box that his perceptions are “situationally aware.”
Prosecutor Patrick Espinoza speculated that the PTSD diagnosis was brought up to create sympathy for the defendant because, “We have great honor for those that have served.” But he told the jury in his final argument, “That is not doing your duty as jurors.” He asked the jury to decide for murder in the first degree, elevated by a “lying in wait” allegation.
The prosecutor described the killing as an unprovoked ambush by a depressed, homicidal Strouth, who stabbed a man while he was looking at his cell phone. The coroner testified there were no defensive wounds on the deceased. A deep stab to his chest caused Garner to bleed out internally; he was found face-down on the floor of his garage, with three more shallow stabs in his back and neck.
The prosecutor described Strouth as a man who was unraveling under the pressure of divorce and other hardships. The same day as the stabbing, Strouth had signed paperwork to sell his home, a home he reportedly loved and wanted to keep but was forced to sell as part of a divorce. According to the prosecutor, “Reality was setting in.”
The jury has been given several options for a verdict: first or second degree murder; voluntary or involuntary manslaughter; or not guilty on all counts.
Judge K. Michael Kirkman has presided over the case in San Diego’s North County Superior Courthouse in Vista.