CLARION - A Clarion man was convicted Friday afternoon of third-degree murder and other charges in connection with the March 2017 shooting death of his girlfriend.
A jury of seven women and five men deliberated about four hours before handing down the guilty verdicts against Damien Ditz, 23. Ditz was accused of killing Katrina Seaburn, a Clarion University student from Curwensville, on March 1, 2017, after a dispute over money.
Jurors were picked Monday, and the trial lasted three days. Closing arguments and instructions to the jury took place Friday before deliberations began.
In addition to the third-degree murder charge, Ditz was found guilty of aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, simple assault causing bodily injury, simple assault with a deadly weapon and reckless endangerment.
Ditz will be sentenced at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 23, by presiding judge James Arner. A pre-sentence investigation will be conducted before that time.
With a third-degree murder conviction, Ditz faces at least 5 to 20 years in state prison. The maximum sentence for murder 3 is 20 to 40 years.
Arner had educated the jury on the meaning of malice, a term used to prove or disprove murder. In first-degree murder, malice implies the perpetrator deliberately contemplated killing and killed. In third-degree murder, malice implies the perpetrator showed a willing disregard for risking a human life.
"A person who kills must act with malice to be guilty of either charge of murder," Arner told the jury when the trial opened Tuesday.
If a perpetrator kills without malice, the crime is reduced to manslaughter. The defendant can be charged with voluntary (death was caused intentionally) or involuntary (death resulted in the defendant's recklessness) manslaughter.
Ditz's attorney, Adam Bishop of Bishop Law in Pittsburgh, was the first to give his closing argument Friday.
"This was an accident," Bishop told the jury. "And all the evidence in this case supports that."
Bishop told the jury evidence always supports the truth and the prosecution did not provide evidence beyond a doubt Ditz intentionally killed Seaburn. He specifically indicated the prosecution didn't provide the jury with evidence of premeditation or maliciousness.
Bishop noted the prosecution succeeded in providing examples of Ditz's inexperience with a handgun and gross negligence.
"This is what an accidental shooting death looks like," Bishop said. "Every kill is not a murder."
Bishop recounted Ditz's lack of handgun training, history of no domestic violence, his calls to 911 and Seaburn's mother directly after the shooting and his hospitalization with PTSD symptoms. Bishop pointed out only one round was discharged from the firearm in a populated area in daylight.
"No proof of malice means no proof of murder," said Bishop.
Bishop addressed Ditz's original lies to 911, police and family, but dismissed this as a survival reaction. He asked members of the jury to consider the point of view of a young man who unintentionally shot his girlfriend in a car with no witnesses.
Bishop asked the jury to consider what it didn't hear as well as what it did. He noted the prosecution didn't present a single text message indicating Ditz and Seaburn weren't getting along at any point in their three-year relationship, despite state police confiscating the couple's cellphones.
"Sometimes, the absence of evidence tells you more than the defendant ever could," Bishop concluded.
Clarion County District Attorney Mark Aaron agreed with Bishop's supposition Ditz would have been in trouble if he told police immediately after the shooting he was responsible.
"If Damien came out of the carand told the truth," said Aaron, "he would have been charged with murder."
Using a slide presentation, Aaron showed the jury the differences between degrees of murder and manslaughter.
"As you know, this case is about murder," Aaron said. "And the commonwealth has proved beyond a reasonable doubt this was murder."
Aaron reminded the jury Ditz initially lied to law enforcement as well as family members about Seaburn's death.
"Damien lied for the same reason everyone lies: to protect himself," Aaron said.
He asked the jury to listen to part of the 911 call Ditz made immediately after the shooting. While explaining to the dispatcher what happened, Ditz sobbed, "I have a pistol in the car. I have a permit."
Aaron suggested this implied Ditz was first and foremost concerned with protecting himself.
"The first rule of gun safety is don't point it at someone if it's loaded," Aaron said. "You think he didn't know that?"
Aaron remarked on the "dramatic difference" in Ditz's demeanor when he took the stand Thursday. After shaking visibly and weeping while being questioned by Bishop, he returned to the stand an hour later and answered Aaron's questions directly.
Aaron asked the jury if this was the demeanor of someone who couldn't control his emotions. Seaburn's death, he told the jury, was a matter of "manhood."
"He isn't going to take his woman telling him he can't loan $130 to his cousin," declared Aaron. "He was having his manhood insulted and he wasn't going to take it anymore."
In a brief meeting with media following the verdict, Aaron said he expected the jury's decision.
"I think the verdict did justice to the case," he said.
Aaron applauded state police and other officials working the case for their dedication.
"This was a tough case," Aaron added. "There's only one person who knows 100 percent what happened in that car."
Aaron concluded the verdict shows how Clarion County continues fighting against domestic violence.