A 31-year-old convicted drunken driver who fled the scene of a DUI crash five years ago in Westminster that killed a friend was found guilty Thursday of second-degree murder.
Jurors deliberated for about 4 1/2 hours before convicting Jonathan Aaron Samoff, who moved to Nebraska after the March 8, 2014, crash that killed 25-year-old Isaias Tang.
A previous jury deadlocked 11-1 in June in favor of guilty, leading to the declaration of a mistrial, prompting this month's retrial. The main difference in the most recent trial was the defendant testifying instead of his father.
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Samoff pleaded guilty Nov. 20, 2009, to driving drunk in Los Angeles County. He was admonished about the dangers of drinking and driving and was warned that if he drove drunk again and it resulted in someone's death he would face an upgrade in charges from vehicular manslaughter to second-degree murder.
At that time, Samoff was also ordered to participate in a three-month, first-offender program for drunken drivers that educates them on the hazards of drinking while impaired and mandates attendance at 12-step meetings for alcoholics or drug addicts, Senior Deputy District Attorney Dan Feldman said at the trial held earlier this year.
On March 7, 2014, Samoff was kicked out of a sober living home in Anaheim for violating rules. He befriended the victim at that facility, according to Feldman.
A witness told investigators he saw the pair at a gym in Fullerton about 10 p.m. that night and they appeared to be intoxicated, Feldman said.
"He smelled the odor of alcohol and marijuana," Feldman said at the first trial.
According to Feldman, the two said they had plans to go to a bar in Fullerton later that night.
About 2:15 a.m. the following morning, the pair visited with Tang's cousin, who told Tang she had just been diagnosed with lupus, Feldman said. During a tearful conversation in which Tang tried to console her, she made him promise that he would not get behind the wheel of a car because he had been drinking, Feldman said.
Samoff, "who looked fine" to Tang's cousin, introduced himself as Tang's "designated driver," Feldman said.
At 2:54 a.m., police were called to Magnolia Street and Oasis Avenue, where a Toyota Camry had slammed into a wall, Feldman said.
Samoff pulled Tang out of the car and "left him on the curb to die," Feldman said.
Feldman said Samoff ran from the crash scene and went to his father's home, where the defendant's aunt noticed he had a "fresh" head wound and took him to a local hospital, where his blood was drawn.
Samoff's blood-alcohol level just before 5 a.m. was 0.11, well over the legal limit of 0.08, according to the prosecutor. An expert testified that the defendant's blood-alcohol level at the time of the crash was 0.15, nearly double the legal limit, Feldman said.
Samoff's DNA was on the driver's side air bag, and Tang's was on the passenger side airbag, according to Feldman, who said a neighbor who heard the crash and looked over the wall where the car crashed told investigators he saw a man in a hood pull Tang out of the car.
Samoff fled the state after the crash and was arrested in October 2014 in Omaha, Nebraska.
Defense attorney Eugene Sung said his client was a "young man with a bright future" when he was arrested for drunken driving in Los Angeles County in 2009.
"He had a wake-up call and there were issues he had to deal with, which ultimately takes him to the sober living home in Anaheim," Sung said.
Sung said Samoff did not leave his friend ``to die'' on the curb because the victim was killed instantly in the crash.