Whether Joshua Wagner fatally stabbed Norman "George" Dennis in an intentional, cold-blooded murder or in an instance of justified self-defense is now for a jury to decide.
Wagner, 37, has been on trial for about two weeks and does not dispute claims by police and state prosecutors that he killed Dennis, 34, inside Dennis' garage in South Anchorage. But Wagner testified this week that it was a last resort: Dennis started a fight, pulled a knife and was pummeling him, he said.
Prosecutors say Wagner provoked the other man, stabbed him nine times, then lied to police about the circumstances and where the attack occurred. And Dennis never carried a knife, according to prosecutors and witnesses.
The jury heard testimony that both men had been drinking.
Wagner testified Tuesday that Dennis was out of town when Dennis' girlfriend, Annie Atkinson, allowed Wagner to move his trailer into their driveway. She asked Wagner to leave before Dennis came home.
Wagner ended up parking his trailer next door, leaving some things in Dennis' garage. That upset Dennis, Wagner said.
Just before his death, Dennis told Wagner they needed to talk in the garage, Wagner testified.
"He started freaking out on me," Wagner said. "The next thing I know, he sucker-punched me."
Dennis was hitting Wagner, and then Dennis had a knife, which Wagner said he grabbed. Wagner said he was stuck in a corner of the garage and could not get away.
"I pulled him in as close as I could and stabbed him," Wagner said.
Wagner said he did not remember many other details after the fight -- he'd been punched so hard twice that he saw stars, he testified -- and went next door and collapsed on a couch thinking he'd been stabbed.
"I thought I was stuck. I thought I was leaking," he said.
First, though, prosecutors said Wagner grabbed a fire extinguisher, broke out some windows to the house and sprayed the extinguisher inside and into Dennis' face while screaming that he was going to kill Dennis.
Dennis went unresponsive in minutes, said prosecutor Andrew Grannik, an assistant district attorney, during closing arguments Thursday. A police officer found the dying man next to a washer and dryer. Atkinson, the girlfriend, had laid down next to him, Grannik said. The only reaction from Dennis that the officer could elicit was a slight movement of his fingers, Grannik said.
In court, Atkinson sobbed into tissues during the description of Dennis' death.
"I've lived and relived this so many times, and I'm just looking for some closure," she said later. "It's hard, seeing pictures of him. It's not good."
The night of the stabbing, another officer talked to Wagner. This is when the lying started, Grannik said. Wagner claimed the fight began outside, next to his Ford Bronco, on the property where Wagner was staying. Grannik said it would have appeared to be a more justifiable place to use lethal force to protect himself.
Grannik played a recording the officer made of the interview.
"I was trying to defend myself, dude," Wagner said in the recording.
"How did he get stabbed?" the officer asked.
"I don't know man. Did I get him?"
"Oh, you got him."
A medical examiner found nine stab wounds, including one to Dennis' heart, Grannik said. This was proof that Wagner meant to kill Dennis, the prosecutor said. The way Wagner stabbed Dennis, it was not possible for him to have been cornered or "balled up" on the ground, as he claimed, Grannik said.
Wagner, on the witness stand Tuesday, admitted he had lied to police about where the stabbing occurred, saying he did not want Dennis to get away with attacking him, Grannik told the jurors Thursday.
"It was, at most, a fistfight that Mr. Wagner took to the next level," Grannik said. "How many stab wounds to the back would it take for it to not be self-defense?"
Wagner's lawyer, Joseph Van De Mark, turned the blame for escalating the situation back onto Dennis.
"It sounds to me like the person who had a motive to start a fight in the garage was George," Van De Mark said. "(Wagner) was justified when he was trapped in that corner, couldn't go right or left or backward. He had to do what he had to do."