An attorney for a man charged with killing two women and attempting to kill a third in Southern California told jurors in closing arguments Wednesday that actor Ashton Kutcher‘s testimony helps point to a different suspect.
Attorney Daniel Nardoni tried to convince a jury that two other men may have been responsible for the stabbing deaths 43-year-old Michael Gargiulo is charged with, and in the case of Ashley Ellerin, who was killed in her Hollywood home in 2001, he said the testimony of Kutcher, who testified in the early days of the trial in May, was key when combined with two others.
“Ashton Kutcher is a celebrity star in the entertainment industry,” Nardoni said. “And I believe Ashton Kutcher is the star witness in this case.”
At the time of the murder, Kutcher was a few seasons into “That ’70s Show” and had just starred in the film “Dude, Where’s My Car?” but was not yet the household name and tabloid staple that he would become a few years later after marrying Demi Moore.
Ellerin was a 22-year-old fashion design student. The two were casual acquaintances with mutual friends, but both were newly single and planning to go out together the night Ellerin was killed.
The two last spoke at 8:24 p.m. when, Kutcher testified, he told Ellerin he was running late and Ellerin told him she had just gotten out of the shower.
Nardoni told jurors that Ellerin’s apartment manager, an aspiring actor, testified that he was having a sexual relationship with her, and was in the house when Kutcher called.
Nardoni told jurors the call could have made him angry and violent.
“We have this handsome man, Mr. Kutcher, getting ready for her date,” Nardoni said, adding that Ellerin must have been thinking, “‘Do I want to be with Ashton Kutcher?’ What do you think ladies and gentlemen?”
A neighbor who was passing Ellerin’s house on the way to a nearby dog park testified that he heard two screams coming from Ellerin’s house at about 8:30 p.m., just around the time of Kutcher’s call.
Nardoni said this was most likely when Ellerin was killed.
Kutcher testified that he arrived at Ellerin’s apartment much later in the evening, got no answer when he knocked on the door, looked inside the house and saw what he thought were wine stains, then left, thinking she had gone out without him.
Nardoni told jurors he did not need to prove that someone else killed Ellerin, only to establish that another possible suspect could cast reasonable doubt on Gargiulo’s guilt.
The lawyer used the same tactic when discussing the other murder his client is charged with — the 2005 killing of 32-year-old mother of four Maria Bruno in her house in the Los Angeles suburb of El Monte. Nardoni suggested that her estranged husband, the last person to see her alive, was responsible.
The defense attorney showed jurors a graphic crime-scene photo of Bruno, who — like Ellerin — had been stabbed dozens of times.
Bruno’s breasts were cut off and breast implants removed, a sign of deep-seated hatred, Nardoni argued.
“Whoever did this, it was personal,” he said.
The attorney told the jury that no physical evidence, no DNA, no fingerprints, no hair samples, were found tying Gargiulo to the scene in the Ellerin case. And he said only a shoe-covering bootie that Gargiulo used in his work as an air conditioner repair man with his and the victim’s DNA was found in the Bruno case, but it was outside her apartment in a complex where both she and Gargiulo lived.
Gargiulo lived near or knew the victims in all the attacks, including the 1993 killing of Tricia Pacaccio, for which Gargiulo is awaiting a separate trial.
The physical evidence is far stronger for the attempted murder case, in which Michelle Murphy was attacked in 2008 in her bed at her apartment in Santa Monica, but fought back, causing the attacker to cut himself and leave a trail of blood as he fell.
The DNA in the blood matched DNA collected from Gargiulo during another murder investigation.
Nardoni made no attempt at a defense on that count, essentially conceding it and telling jurors not to let it influence their decision on the two killings.
“I know that the evidence is much stronger with Michelle Murphy, that’s the elephant in the courtroom,” Nardoni said. “You have to judge each case separately.”
Gargiulo was arrested weeks after the Murphy attack, and it eventually led to charges for the two California killings and the killing of 18-year-old Pacaccio, a friend’s older sister, in his hometown of Glenview, Illinois, when Gargiulo was 17.
The prosecution had praised Murphy’s toughness and resolve in its closing arguments a day earlier.
“Michelle Murphy, because of her strength and courage, allowed investigators to work backwards to find the killer of Tricia Pacaccio, of Ashley Ellerin, of Maria Bruno,” Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Garrett Dameron said.
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