The defense attorney for a man accused of killing an off-duty Army sergeant in 2008 said in her closing argument Wednesday that she does not dispute her client shot the Fort Richardson soldier. But whether the gunman acted intentionally and knew his actions could cause the military policeman's death are now questions for an Anchorage jury to decide as it deliberates.
The answers to those questions mean the difference between 99 years behind bars or no prison time at all for 28-year-old Vongdeuane Vongthongdy. The jury could convict him of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, manslaughter, or criminally negligent homicide, along with a weapons misconduct charge.
Vongthongdy admits to shooting Sgt. Evan Minnear, 24, outside the Woodshed Lounge, a downtown Anchorage bar early on Nov. 30, 2008. It happened just 16 days after his release from jail for probation violations.
Vongthongdy was a "ticking time bomb" on Anchorage's streets that night, prosecutor James Fayette told the jury Wednesday.
"He shot him. He shot him intentionally. He took his life. He took his life suddenly. Unfairly. Painfully," Fayette told the jury. "He imposed upon Evan a death that we wouldn't wish on our worst enemies. He was shot, bleeding, in the cold snow on the streets of Anchorage, Alaska."
Minnear was having a night out with friends, including his girlfriend, Yasmin Castillo. They were celebrating his return from a 15-month tour in Iraq that ended the previous spring, his mother, Julie Rushton, said in an interview.
When Vongthongdy fired a .40 caliber semiautomatic handgun into the air outside the bar, Minnear approached him to diffuse the situation, Fayette said.
"He was a very protective person, and he's always been that way," Rushton said. She traveled to Anchorage from Indianapolis in September only to find out the trial had been rescheduled. Rushton returned this month for what would be a three-week trial.
Minnear was a trained military police officer, Rushton said. Making sure people around him were safe was just part of who he was, she said.
Surveillance video played for the jury showed Minnear walking toward Vongthongdy and the two other men with him. Exactly what happened next is disputed.
Witnesses testified that there was some pushing between the two men.
Fayette said the video shows the pushing was not Minnear being aggressive toward Vongthongdy, but actually a member of Vongthongdy's party trying to separate the two men.
Both of them were drunk, Fayette said, but Vongthongdy had a gun.
According to defense attorney Leslie Hiebert, testimony by Castillo -- Minnear's girlfriend and an eyewitness -- indicated that Minnear pushed Vongthongdy first. Minnear outweighed Vongthongdy by 60 pounds and was able to knock him and another man down, Hiebert said.
"This wasn't a situation where anybody had time to think about what they were doing," Hiebert said.
Vongthongdy then took aim and shot Minnear once in the chest, Fayette said. A man pulled off his shirt to compress it on the wound in an attempt to stop the bleeding. Minnear died later at a hospital.
Rushton heard about her son's death from the military the next afternoon, she said.
"It was just like you see on TV," she said. "Black car pulls up to the house, military officer comes out, with a chaplain."
"It was horrendous, and the next month was horrendous," said Minnear's aunt, Joni Breeden, also in town for the trial and to support Rushton, her sister.
When Minnear was in Iraq, the family prayed every day for his safety, Breeden said.
"He got home and we relaxed," Breeden said.
"We all just sighed a big sigh of relief when he came home, and then this happened," Rushton said.
Minnear's brother, younger by 18 months, recently joined the military "to carry on in his brother's footsteps," Rushton said.
"This is his way of dealing with it," she said.