Update, 4 p.m. Thursday: The jury has delivered a verdict. Read the story here.
PALMER — Dominic Johnson didn’t kill David Grunwald because he wasn’t there.
That’s the contention made by Johnson’s attorney Wednesday during closing arguments in his Palmer Superior Court trial on murder and other charges in the November 2016 death of the 16-year-old from Palmer.
Jury deliberations began midafternoon Wednesday.
Johnson, 18, is the second of four teenagers accused of killing Grunwald, a crime that drew national attention for its sordid portrait of teen life in small-town Alaska.
Erick Almandinger, 19, was convicted of the murder in May. Bradley Renfro and Austin Barrett face as-yet-unscheduled trials.
Investigators say Grunwald was smoking marijuana in a camper-trailer at Almandinger’s Palmer home with Johnson, Renfro and Barrett when he was ambushed coming out of the bathroom, beaten with a pistol, then driven in his Ford Bronco to a remote spot near the Knik River where he was shot and killed. The Bronco was found torched at the base of the Talkeetna Mountains the next day.
Prosecutors portrayed Johnson as part of “a gang” with easy access to weapons and marijuana. Almandinger knew Grunwald from Colony High School. Grunwald grew up in a military family and had a strict curfew, yet was described in court documents as an at least occasional marijuana smoker who texted a friend the day he died looking for some.
Johnson’s four-week trial was dominated by the digital trails left by the teens, led by a Snapchat video of Johnson talking about trying to hurt someone by beating them “as hard as I can in the head, just to try to hurt him” about three hours before Grunwald’s beating and abduction.
Prosecutors say they can’t establish who fired the fatal shot that Sunday night. Instead, they are relying on accomplice liability laws that require proving a group acted together to commit a crime.
Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak in closing arguments portrayed Johnson as the “catalyst” for the murder who suggested the beating that led to the group’s decision to kill Grunwald to cover it up.
“They were fixing a problem that Johnson created,” Kalytiak said.
It was Johnson who led authorities to an area within 50 yards of Grunwald’s body in a remote site near the Knik River — nearly three weeks after he was killed.
But his court-appointed attorney, Lyle Stohler, argued Wednesday that Johnson struggled to find the exact spot.
Stohler also said during closing arguments that the state’s own evidence from cellphone signals indicated Johnson’s phone could have been in Butte at the time of the murder.
Isn’t it possible, Stohler asked the jury, that Johnson got out of the Bronco in Butte before the group got to the Knik River? Isn’t it possible he was walking along the Old Glenn Highway as they passed on their way back and picked him up?
“What we are telling you, what this evidence tells you ... is that Dominic Johnson wasn’t present when David Grunwald was killed because Dominic Johnson didn’t want David Grunwald dead," he told the jury. "He didn’t intend on killing him and he didn’t want to be a part of that.”
Stohler admitted that Johnson beat Grunwald, though he told the jury the injuries inflicted weren’t serious enough to merit a first-degree assault conviction. He also admitted Johnson kidnapped Grunwald and burned the Bronco.
He said his client committed “felony murder” — because he was involved in a kidnapping that led to Grunwald’s death — but not first-degree murder, the most serious charge against him.
Kalytiak, rebutting Stohler’s arguments, said the evidence doesn’t show Johnson got out of the Bronco.
The cellphone evidence that Stohler referenced was difficult to interpret and could have indicated Johnson was on Knik River Road after all, he said. Johnson also apparently turned off his phone entirely for about 30 minutes at the estimated time of the shooting.
It doesn’t make sense that Johnson would get out of the car after beating and kidnapping Grunwald, Kalytiak said, and then turn off his phone as he walked.
“At some point, right before the worst thing happened, he took himself out of the group," he told the jury. “Is that reasonable to believe based on the evidence? I would argue that’s not a reasonable conclusion to draw.”
Numerous texts and phone calls between Johnson and other defendants in the moments leading up to the killing and the hours after featured prominently in the prosecution’s evidence.
Along with the Snapchat video, prosecutors shared messages from Johnson the night of the murder, including a thread asking Almandinger to bring out his pistol to the camper-trailer to do something fast that Johnson wanted kept secret. Other texts showed Johnson’s mother talking about getting rid of his bloody hoodie.
The group spent the days after the murder partying in a shed near Palmer, witnesses testified.
Johnson sat impassively next to Stohler as Palmer Superior Court Judge Gregory Heath instructed the jury in the legal underpinnings of the case: If Johnson was guilty of murder, they need to find beyond a reasonable doubt he acted with the three other teens to intentionally cause Grunwald’s death.
Under accomplice liability laws, Johnson is guilty even if he didn’t personally kill Grunwald but instead one of the four defendants did and he intended to “promote or facilitate” the act, acted with the intent of killing Grunwald, and helped plan the crime.
Johnson also faces lesser murder and homicide charges, as well as counts of assault, kidnapping, arson, vehicle theft and destroying evidence.
Stohler raised scores of objections during the trial, at times racking up more than two dozen in a single day — and on one day, more than 30.
Grunwald’s girlfriend, Victoria Mokelke, sat between his parents in the front row of the courtroom gallery on Wednesday. Johnson’s grandmother sat in a second row.
Renfro’s attorney sat in the back, taking notes.