By Kelly Wheeler
City News Service
A state appeals court Wednesday reduced a second-degree murder conviction to voluntary manslaughter for a La Jolla man who killed a professional surfer with one punch during a group fight outside the victim's home.
A three-justice panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal - in a 68-page opinion - ruled there wasn't enough evidence presented at trial to support the murder conviction for Seth Cravens, one of the so-called "Bird Rock Bandits."
The appellate justices concluded there was no evidence that Cravens knew when he struck Emery Kauanui that the blow would be fatal.
Cravens, now 24, was convicted in February 2009 in Kauanui's death and was sentenced to 20 years to life in state prison.
The defendant was also convicted of assault and battery in connection with violent incidents dating back to 2005 and unrelated to Kauanui's May 2007 death.
Cravens will now be re-sentenced and faces up to 16 years behind bars, but more likely will get 11, according to his attorney, Mary Ellen Attridge.
The District Attorney's Office issued a statement saying it was "reviewing the appellate court's ruling and will work with the Attorney General to determine whether or not the decision will be appealed."
At the original sentencing, prosecutor Sophia Roach urged Judge John Einhorn to sentence Cravens to more than 26 years to life in prison, saying the defendant's conduct showed a course of "brutal and wanton violence."
Roach said Cravens had been "terrorizing" the La Jolla community for years and "everybody knew it."
In her closing argument at trial, Attridge said Cravens acted in self-defense and was not guilty of murder or voluntary manslaughter.
Attridge said Cravens, who is right-handed, punched Kauanui once with his left hand when the 24-year-old victim got up from a one-on-one fight with Eric House.
The victim's girlfriend, Jennifer Grosso, testified that Kauanui had been losing the fight with House when Cravens walked up and hit him, causing Kauanui to fall back and crack his skull on the pavement.
Attridge also contended that the prosecution failed to prove the fight represented a group beating on Kauanui by House, Cravens, Hank Hendricks, Orlando Osuna and Matthew Yanke.
House, Osuna, Hendricks and Yanke pleaded guilty to lesser charges and were sentenced to jail time.
Osuna, House and Yanke later violated probation and were each sent to prison for three years.
The defendants were originally charged with being part of a loosely-knit gang called the "Bird Rock Bandits," but Einhorn ruled that not to be the case.