EL CAJON, Calif. (CNS) - An Alpine man who took part in a robbery in which a pair of liquor store clerks were killed was part of a "robbery team" that targeted the business, according to a prosecutor, while the defendant's lawyer told jurors he was coerced into participating.
The statements came at the start of a retrial for Anthony James Miller, who is charged with murder and a special circumstance allegation of murder during a robbery and multiple murders in connection with the March 1, 2006, fatal shootings of Heather Mattia and Firas Eiso at Granada Liquor in the 900 block of Broadway in El Cajon. The jury in a previous trial deadlocked.
Miller, 24, was not the shooter but under the law can be held just as responsible as the gunman, 27-year-old Jean Pierre Rices, who in August was sentenced to death.
Based on the opposing lawyers' version of events, jurors will be tasked with deciding whether Miller was a willing participant in the robbery.
Miller, Rices and Nichele Hopson were "a robbery team preparing for a robbery," Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Kaplan said in her opening statement.
Miller and Rices grew up "like brothers" and Miller considered Hopson a sister, Kaplan said.
They forced Mattia, 22, and Eiso, 23, back into the store at closing time and Rices ordered them face down on the floor at gunpoint, she said.
Miller's role was the "bagman," she said.
"Miller takes the bag, steps over the victims, and goes behind the counter," Kaplan said. "He takes what money is there, about $1,000."
He also took several packs of his brand of cigarettes, she said.
The prosecutor said video surveillance cameras show Rices conferring with Miller, who then leaves the store just before the victims are shot.
Defense attorney Daniel Mangarin told jurors Miller was closer to Hopson than Rices, but she began a romantic relationship with Rices shortly after he was released from a prison stint. The new couple moved into an apartment in central El Cajon and she became pregnant, he said.
Mangarin said on the night of the robbery, Rices invited Miller to see the apartment and, at Hopson's urging, they went out looking for something to do. After making a couple of stops, Rices directed them to Granada Liquor.
"Within a matter of seconds," Rices was confronting the victims with a handgun pulled out and he ordered Miller to put on a mask and go into the store, Mangarin said.
Rices had "a reputation," was armed and spoke with a voice that "had to be obeyed," according to the lawyer.
The surveillance video shows "a madman waving a gun around" while Miller "is fumbling at the cash register," Mangarin said.
His client didn't know a robbery was about to happen, that the victims would be shot, and he later declined a share of the loot, he said.
"What could he have been reasonably expected to do during those 90 to 200 seconds?" Mangarin asked.
The prosecution plans to show jurors a recording of police questioning Miller, who allegedly acknowledged that he shared responsibility for the deaths and told detectives he'd helped Rices rob convenience stores dating back to when he was 13 or 14 years old.
Prosecutors believe those statements are inconsistent with defense contentions that Miller was coerced.
Mangarin asked Judge Lantz Lewis to prevent those statements from being introduced because they're "inflammatory."
The judge indicated he would rule Monday on that point.
The trial is expected to last about two weeks. If convicted, Miller faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Hopson, 25, pleaded guilty to two counts of voluntary manslaughter for being the getaway driver that night and agreed to testify against Miller and Rices in exchange for a reduced sentence.
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