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The following article was posted on January 24th, 2013, in the New Times - Volume 27, Issue 26 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 27, Issue 26

Uncertain future

The fate of an ambiguous SLO stabbing case is in the air after a plea deal is laid on the table

BY MATT FOUNTAIN

He sat in custody in the San Luis Obispo County Superior Courthouse, hunched over in his orange jumpsuit, shackled hands folded, a yellow manila envelope with a number of photographs resting in his lap.


WORTH A FIGHT?
Vallejo resident Austin Sarna, 22, fielded questions from Superior Court Judge John Trice at a preliminary hearing in the assault and attempted murder case against him on Dec. 13. Defense attorney Fred Foss is pictured in the foreground.
FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

He had just returned to his seat among the 10 or so other men and women in orange and red, awaiting their hearings. He kept his head down, but from where a New Times reporter sat, it appeared as if Austin Sarna had been crying.

The reporter later learned that Sarna’s Jan. 22 trial-setting hearing marked the first time he ever saw his newborn daughter, born just two days prior in Sarna’s hometown of Vallejo. It was just a photograph, but it was his baby.

Sarna, 22, has been in custody in county jail since September 2012, after San Luis Obispo police detectives picked him up in Vallejo for his role in a late-night Jan. 28, 2012, incident near the Mission Plaza, where a 27-year-old Atascadero man sustained life-threatening injuries—specifically a severed artery in his left bicep.

Sarna, short and unassuming despite neck tattoos and a small peace sign below the corner of his left eye, is the only person facing charges stemming from the incident, which may have involved up to nine people. He stands accused of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon for stabbing Trevor Tice, who was found by passersby and police, collapsed and bleeding in the street near the intersection of Broad and Mission.

The Vallejo man was originally facing eight years in federal prison if convicted of all charges, including an enhancement due to a previous assault conviction based out of Solano County—stemming from a fistfight, according to family members. That information couldn’t be verified by his probation officer, who didn’t return a request from New Times for comment.

But as Sarna prepared to take the case to trial, events at a Jan. 22 trial-setting conference gave him pause, as well as a lot of conferring to do with family members as he weighs the pros and cons of fighting the case.

According to his attorney, San Luis Obispo-based Fred Foss, prosecutors have placed a few plea deals on the table that would keep the case from going to trial and preclude calling the many individuals involved to the witness stand.

Foss said following Sarna’s latest hearing that he and Deputy District Attorney Lee Cunningham had negotiated a final offer: The DA would drop the attempted murder charge in exchange for a guilty plea for assault with a deadly weapon.

But the offer carries with it some good and some bad news for Sarna, should he accept it. As always, the bad first: The new charge, should he plead guilty, would be considered a “strike” under California’s “Three Strikes Law,” and would carry with it a two-year sentence in state prison. However, that term would likely be cut in half with a 50 percent credit, common in similar cases due to California’s recent realignment of the prison system—though it’s uncertain how time served and other factors may play into his possible scenario.

That current offer was verified by SLO District Attorney’s Office Spokesman Jerret Gran, who said the office could release no further details surrounding the case while it remains ongoing, as is their protocol.

Superior Court Judge John Trice ruled that Sarna has a week to reach a decision.

Foss told New Times that the decision was Sarna’s alone—and is a “tough call,” though he’s expressed his belief that the defendant has a solid self-defense argument.

Tice, the alleged victim in the case, reached out to New Times, as well, and spoke candidly regarding his thoughts on the proceedings thus far.

He said his arm has healed from the wound, though he continues to have nerve damage and his hand doesn’t function in the same capacity as it did before the injury. Furthermore, he said, he continues to have no recollection of the incident.

Asked whether he agrees with the DA’s recent plea offer, Tice said he just “hope[s] justice is served.”

“Whatever happens, I would hope for it to be fair of what happened to me and the amount of damage it caused and the pain from the surgery,” Tice said. “If [the case] goes to trial, that’s fine with me. [Jurors] can see the kind of person I am and the kind of person [Sarna] is.”

Sarna came to SLO in fall 2011 to participate in the “Occupy SLO” movement. While he was here, he was homeless, spending his time in shelters and with the Occupy group. It was here he met his now-fiancée.

According to investigators’ reports, in the late-evening hours of Jan. 20, 2012, at least six “college-aged” men were walking up Broad Street toward Monterey when at least one in the group kicked a passing vehicle. The driver of the vehicle—whose identity has not been publicly released by investigators—allegedly pulled over, confronted the group, and a fight ensued, of which the driver was apparently on the losing end.

Witnesses and members of the group later told detectives that Sarna then approached from the Plaza, where he was walking his dog. Sarna admitted to investigators that he told the group to leave the driver alone, and when they didn’t, he allegedly pulled a 7-inch knife from his bag and brandished it threateningly, repeating his command.

According to Sarna’s and other witnesses’ accounts, he was grabbed from behind and another struggle ensued. Witnesses recounted that Sarna was on his back with at least two members of the group continuing to fight, punch, and kick him. That’s when he began slashing with the knife, he later told investigators.

After about 30 seconds, witnesses recounted, the group dispersed to avoid the police; the large group piling into a truck, the unidentified driver pulling away, Sarna retreating to the creek, and Tice left to carry himself down the street.

Though numbers varied based on who was talking, members of the group also later admitted that they—with the exception of a sober driver—had been binge-drinking earlier in the night. The sober driver said the group consumed about 10 drinks each.

Detectives later found the knife in the brush around the Plaza, and tested it for DNA, leading them to Solano County, where Sarna was arrested at the home he shared with his fiancée. According to her, Sarna had been keeping a steady job and saving for the family’s future together prior to his arrest.

Sarna is due back before Judge Trice in SLO Superior Court to make his decision, on Jan. 29. ∆

Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at mfountain@newtimesslo.com.