Opening Arguments in the Lemus Murder Case



Last December, Kelly Choate, 53, was fatally stabbed on a Saturday night by Jeffrey Lemus during a conflict that escalated to violence at Kenny’s Bar & Grill in Woodland.  Deputy DA Kyle Hasapes on Wednesday during opening arguments argued for first degree murder, calling Mr. Lemus’ actions a progressive plan that evolved, changing to fit the circumstances.

He argued that what started out a few years ago as a conflict over a bicycle ended up in murder when the two confronted each other under the heavy influence of alcohol and possibly methamphetamine at the bar in Woodland.

Mr. Hasapes, during his opening, argued that Lemus had twelve minutes to ponder his actions after Mr. Choate offended him at the bar.

His first plan was to lure Choate into the restroom, away from witnesses, where he would lie in wait to attack him.  However, that plan was compromised.

So he created an alternative plan where he would bait the victim to the front of the bar and attempt to lure him outside, away from witnesses.  Lemus’ idea, the deputy DA claimed, was to bait Choate into a knife fight.  But that plan failed as well.

Mr. Choate didn’t reach for his knife, instead he punched Lemus in the face.  Mr. Lemus, humiliated by being punched, now opened his own knife, lunged forward and stabbed Choate in the heart – piercing the 7th rib, his lung, and his heart.

However, the DDA, realizing that the victim here was far from a saint, laid out as much history as possible.  There was a misdemeanor weapons charge in Mr. Choate’s history, a charge that goes back to 1991.

Twenty years later an intoxicated Kelly Choate was alleged to have taken out his knife and threatened to slit someone’s throat after a confrontation – although he was never charged for this past offense.

On that fateful day in December, Mr. Choate, said to be an avid fisherman, went fishing.  He used his knife supposedly to clean and gut the fish.  At 6 pm, he was homing and cleaning the fish when a friend came by and wanted to go to Kenny’s.  He didn’t want to go, but his friend would not take no for an answer.

They had drinks prior to going to Kenny’s and, by the time he got there, he was quite intoxicated.

Mr. Hasapes spent a great deal of time showing bits and pieces of the incident, tied together by the surveillance camera at the bar.

It was Mr. Choate who confronted Mr. Lemus first.  Choate said to Lemus, “Hey m-f-, what are you doing here?  I’m going to get you.”

At this point, the Mr. Hasapes argued that Lemus became angry and said he hated Choate and Choate was going to get it.

In the end, Hasapes argued, the attack was premeditated and deliberate.  Lemus killed Choate with a stab to the heart that pierced the 7th rib and lung.

In his opening arguments, Deputy Public Defender Ron Johnson argued that the DA’s view of this incident is “myopic” and “unrealistic.”  This, he said, was not a plan that changed to fit the circumstance but is rather Mr. Hasapes creating a theory that fits the evidence, while missing other key evidence that points to another conclusion.

He said that this is not a question of who did what, but rather it is a matter of what was in the mind of Mr. Lemus at the time these incidents occurred.  The video may show pieces of the action, but they do not show what was going on in Lemus’ mind.  He pointed out that if Lemus believed that Choate represented a danger to him, he had a right to defend himself, even if his belief at the time was mistaken.

Mr. Johnson argued that these were a series of split second decisions – Mr. Lemus did not have time to pour over the video evidence, as Mr. Hasapes has been able to do.

Choate, Mr. Johnson argued, had meth in his system and both men were heavily intoxicated.

While Johnson said he didn’t doubt that Choate may have been a fisherman, fish are not the only thing for which he has used his knife – that he carried everywhere.  He had a history of making threats to others with that knife.

Mr. Johnson agreed with the prosecutor that there was a lengthy feud between the men, but noted that over the last few years, Lemus had attempted to end the feud.

Johnson argued that the confrontation at the bar began with a threat from Mr. Choate, that he was going to get Mr. Lemus.  Lemus, in fact, did not know that Choate was going to be at the bar, and Lemus had arrived first and was largely minding his own business when Choate confronted and threatened him.

The verbal altercation outside, which Mr. Hasapes described, was not a verbal altercation at all.  It was a threat by a man (Choate) who was armed with a knife.  He argued that Mr. Hasapes’ claim that Lemus was attempting to goad Choate into an attack is not credible – instead, what he was trying to do was defend himself.

Mr. Lemus, Johnson argued, was not the aggressor.  In the key chain of events, Mr. Lemus was walking to the door.  Choate yelled at him.  Lemus continued to head to the door, rather than approach the victim.

Choate then “beelined” for the door with the knife.  Mr. Johnson argued that “that’s the initial aggressor (Mr. Choate).  That’s the person starting the fight.”

He then said that Lemus backed away from the onrushing Kelly Choate.  At this point, as Lemus was backing up, he opened his knife and then, as he was attacked by Choate, he pulled the knife and fatally stabbed Choate.

Mr. Johnson implored the jury to view all of the evidence in a critical matter.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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2 thoughts on “Opening Arguments in the Lemus Murder Case”

  1. The Pugilist

    This is going to be a difficult case.  You have a clear feud.  I’m surprised no one raised the point that you can’t claim self-defense if there’s a conflict that you started.

  2. hpierce

    Hopefully, the degree of the charges proved is the only issue, not as to guilt/innocence of the apparent fact that there was an un-warranted taking of a human life…

    If the defendant is released, “scot-free”, justice will not have been served…

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