Ward faces 14-year prison term in brawl
Michael Ward faces up to 141Ú2 years in prison and $16,000 in fines at his sentencing Jan. 23 in the death of a Woodfords man last summer after a brawl in the Gardnerville Ranchos.
A jury of five men and seven women took five hours Wednesday to convict Ward of battery with a deadly weapon, involuntary manslaughter and misdemeanor battery in connection with the death of Jeffrey John, 24, whose body was found in a yard early June 24.
A coroner’s report said John died of cardiac arrhythmia – an irregular heartbeat – following an altercation with Ward who chased him with a knife and cut him, according to witnesses.
Friends and relatives of Ward and John wept as the verdicts were read Wednesday night.
Ward’s mother, Donna Bevilla, stormed out of the courtroom.
“Wait till it happens to their family,” she called out.
Prosecutor Dina Salvucci said she was grateful to the jury.
“I appreciate the jury’s serious consideration of the evidence and, obviously, I agree with the verdicts,” she said.
Karen Lundy, who raised John, declined to comment.
“The family expressed their satisfaction at how the case was handled,” Salvucci said.
Ward’s lawyer, Kevin Walsh, said his client was solemn following the verdicts.
“Michael was very brave and optimistic when I spoke with him,” Walsh said Thursday. “He wanted his day in court and was very appreciative of our efforts.”
The lawyer said he believed there may be grounds for potential appeals on witness exclusion, evidence and jury instructions, but he wanted to complete legal research.
“During most of the trial, we thought we were making a lot of good points,” Walsh said. “Some of the evidentiary rulings were frustrating, but that was the judge’s call.
“The jury did their job. They reached a verdict based on the evidence I was permitted to present and instructions given to the jury over my objections.”
Ward was accused of cutting John with a knife, hitting and kicking him, and killing him during the commission of an unlawful act, after a brawl in the Gardnerville Ranchos.
Ward pleaded not guilty to the charges, claiming he acted in self-defense.
Ward did not testify during the six-day trial, but proclaimed his innocence during Salvucci’s closing statement Wednesday.
She was arguing why jurors should reject the claim of self-defense when Ward interrupted her.
“I’m sorry, your honor. I was in fear for my life,” Ward said.
Walsh traded places with his legal assistant and sat next to Ward, quieting the suspect and putting his arm around him.
“Two guys beat me,” Ward said as Judge Michael Gibbons told him to be quiet and directed the jury to disregard the outburst.
Eyewitnesses to the altercation testified that Ward and John began fighting in the living room of a Gardnerville Ranchos duplex and took the fight outside, Ward arming himself with a knife.
John’s body was found in a yard 330 feet away from the home on Zinfandel.
Showing jurors a 2-foot-by-3-foot enlargement of John’s battered face from an autopsy photo, Salvucci said Ward acted in anger and revenge after the victim reportedly punched him in the eye.
She said Ward’s decision to go after John with a knife removed the suspect from the protection of self-defense.
“You don’t get to bring a knife into a fistfight,” Salvucci said. “Fistfights end in black eyes and bloody noses.”
She showed the jury a picture of Ward taken after his arrest with the beginnings of a black eye.
“Here is Mike,” she said. “He’s going to have a black eye. If he bled from it, you can’t tell because he had the opportunity to wash himself off.”
The autopsy photo of John showed a bloody face, broken nose, swollen lips and a cut between his eyes.
“Here’s Jeff John after the fight,” she said. “He’s dead. He died from a cardiac arrhythmia because he’s being threatened by a knife.”
Walsh reiterated a heart specialist’s testimony from Tuesday that John’s death was brought on by an enlarged heart, a fatty liver and the fact that he weighed 260 pounds.
Walsh recreated a scenario he said eyewitnesses provided, showing that Ward was fighting to defend himself from John and John’s uncle Aaron Lundy, who weighed 350 pounds.
“When (John) picked up Michael Ward, and threw him on the ground, what do you think was going through Michael’s veins? He was on the floor trapped under 610 pounds of drunken fury,” Walsh told the jury.
For the sentencing, Walsh said his job would be to establish mitigating factors.
“I need to identify and present mitigating factors and to give the judge the information necessary to help him come to a just decision,” Walsh said. “I trust this judge at sentencing.”
Walsh said the death of John was a tragedy.
“What happened to Jeffrey John is symptomatic of a deeper problem both on the side of Michael and his friends and Jeffrey John and his friends,” Walsh said.
“It’s not about the Washoe Tribe. It’s about certain individuals on both sides and I think maybe there can be some greater good if we can begin examining some of these underlying problems that relate to the abuse of alcohol and drugs which too often leads to violence.”