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Jury convicts man in 'execution' of San Diego sailor who stopped to help motorist

Edson Acuna, 25, who accused of shooting and killing Curtis Adams, 21, a Navy sailor who stopped to offer help for what he thought was a motorist stranded on a freeway before being shot to death early in the morning of October 27, 2018, sits during the opening statements of his trail at the San Diego Central Courthouse on Tuesday, February 4, 2020 in San Diego, California.

HAYNE PALMOUR IV, THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE/TNS

By THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE Published: February 15, 2020

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Tribune Content Agency) — A San Diego jury on Friday found a man guilty of murdering a Navy man who thought he was going to help a disabled motorist when he stopped on a freeway two years ago.

Edson Acuna, 26, was convicted of fatally shooting Curtis Adams, 21, on Interstate 15 in Logan Heights. Jurors found that Acuna committed the murder during a burglary that happened nearly two miles away, a special-circumstance allegation that carries a sentence of life in prison without parole.

Acuna was accused breaking into an SUV and getting into a shootout with the owner in Mount Hope about five minutes before the freeway shooting. His brother and two others were with him in both incidents.

His trial lasted about two weeks before Superior Court Judge Charles Rogers. The jury began began deliberating Thursday afternoon and returned its verdicts shortly before noon on Friday.

The jury found Acuna guilty of eight felony charges in all, including burglary and robbery, as well as several firearms charges and allegations. He was acquitted of a ninth charge: shooting at an occupied house.

Sentencing was set for April 10.

Adams followed in the footsteps of his father, uncle and brother when he chose to enlist in the Navy in 2016. He was a steelworker with Amphibious Construction Battalion 1, and was stationed at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado.

He’s also a first-generation American. Desmond Abrams Jr., a cousin, said Adams’ parents both immigrated to New York from the West Indies region. Abrams Jr. said Curtis was simultaneously proud of his cultural heritage and to call the United States home.

“He was always proud of our roots, our background, but we're all Americans at the end of the day,” Abrams Jr. said. “He's a good example of that.”

In closing arguments to the jury, Deputy District Attorney Melissa Vasel called the shooting of Adams "an execution." Defense attorney Daniel Cohen called it "a tragic mistake."

Vasel said that in the early hours of Oct. 27, 2018, Acuna drove his brother, Brandon Acuna, his brother's girlfriend, Susana Galvan, and a friend, Harvey Liberato, to a home in Mount Hope. The brothers planned to break into a Chevrolet Tahoe there. The prosecutor said the owner, Jorge Diaz, was specifically targeted, but she did not say why.

She said Brandon Acuna smashed out the back window with a pair of bolt cutters, then Edson Acuna took out painting tools, ladders and buckets. They were loading items into his car when Diaz came out armed with his wife's handgun.

Lawyers in the case disagreed about who fired first, but several rounds were fired by Diaz and Edson Acuna, Vasel said. No one was injured but a round from Acuna's semi-automatic pistol went through the master bedroom window and into the adjoining children's bedroom. The bullet lodged in a stuffed Batman toy.

Acuna and his passengers escaped onto southbound I-15, then rolled to a stop with two flat tires on the shoulder just north of Interstate 5 shortly after 2 a.m. That's when Adams, driving his girlfriend back to his Navy base, saw the disabled white Toyota.

The girlfriend would later testify that Adams told her, "I'm going to be a good Samaritan today" and stopped behind the Toyota. He took two steps and was shot in the chest by Edson Acuna, the prosecutor said.

Vasel said that by legal definition, the crime of burglary continues until the perpetrator escapes to a place of temporary safety. Therefore, the burglary of the Tahoe was on-going when Acuna shot Adams.

She told jurors Acuna fired because he thought Adams was either the homeowner coming after him or someone who would see the firearm and stolen goods in the Toyota.

Acuna's lawyer used the same supposition in raising a self-defense argument, saying his client and the brother were afraid that the man who parked behind them was Diaz come to continue the shootout.

"They thought they were being chased," Cohen said. "They were wrong."

San Diego police found Brandon Acuna and Galvan hiding a short distance from the freeway, a few feet from the pistol used in the shootings. Liberato was arrested almost two weeks later. Edson Acuna was arrested about two months later in Mexico and turned over to San Diego investigators.

Brandon Acuna pleaded guilty last month to voluntary manslaughter for his role in events that led to Adams' death. Liberato and Galvan also entered guilty pleas in the case. They will likely be sentenced with Edson Acuna.

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Curtis Adams, who was stationed at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, was shot and killed on a California highway on the evening of Oct. 27 after he and his girlfriend pulled over to help someone they believed to be a stranded motorist.
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