A jury in Martinez today convicted an Alamo man of voluntary manslaughter for the death of a next-door neighbor with whom he had an ongoing feud.
The Contra Costa County Superior Court jury rejected a second-degree murder charge and found 60-year-old real estate broker Michael Littman guilty of the lesser charge in connection with the death of 59-year-old Doris Penico.
Prosecutors say Littman pushed Penico to her death down the steep shared driveway between their two homes in the 3000 block of Stonegate Drive on Aug. 27, 2012.
Littman was also convicted on a charge of stalking and a charge of assault likely to cause great bodily injury for the beating of the victim’s husband, Victor Penico, during the incident that led to Doris Penico’s death.
He faces up to 12 years and 8 months in prison.
“I am sincerely grateful for the hard work and commitment of this jury,” Deputy District Attorney Molly Manoukian said. “They held Mr. Littman accountable for killing Doris Penico and beating Victor Penico.”
During the trial, Manoukian argued that the neighbors had a longstanding dispute — largely over the use of the shared driveway — and Littman would frequently film and photograph the Penicos without their consent in the years leading up to the killing.
According to testimony from Contra Costa County sheriff’s investigators, more than 100 video files, photos and documents recording the Penicos’ actions in the shared driveway or on their own property were seized from Littman’s home.
Manoukian told the jury that the defendant’s behavior toward his next-door neighbors became increasingly threatening. In one instance, he drove quickly up the driveway toward the couple, who jumped into some bushes to escape.
The jury also saw hours of video recordings taken both from Littman’s house and from security cameras installed at the victims’ home.
One of the videos captured the Aug. 27 fight between Littman and Victor Penico and showed Littman push Doris Penico, causing her to fall down the steep driveway and suffer fatal injuries, according to prosecutors.
But Michael Cardoza, Littman’s attorney, argued during the trial that Littman may have been guilty of being un-neighborly but didn’t stalk or harass them and only started filming the Penicos on advice from an attorney after the couple threatened to sue him.
Cardoza told the jury that the defendant fought Victor Penico on Aug. 27 after being approached aggressively by him and merely “bumped” Doris Penico during the incident, but never meant to kill her.
The attorney said that while he isn’t happy with today’s verdict, he is glad the jury did not find Littman guilty of second-degree murder, which carries a 15 years-to-life prison sentence.
Victor Penico, who attended today’s verdict hearing along with his adult son, said his family has been heavily affected by the loss of his wife of 33 years.
“It’s not the same anymore,” he said, his eyes downcast.
Penico said that while he believes Littman is guilty of second-degree murder, the jury’s decision is one he and his family can live with.
“I respect what the jury did, I think there was some justice for Doris,” he said.
A couple of the defendant’s longtime friends said outside the courtroom today that they knew of Littman’s ongoing dispute with the Penicos, but that they don’t believe he is responsible for Doris Penico’s death.
“We all thought it was a bad accident,” said Kelly Madden, a family friend who attended much of the trial.
“I think (Doris Penico) just lost her balance,” Madden said.
Penico said that he would have liked to see Littman taken into custody today.
Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Charles Burch rejected a request today to jail the defendant, who the prosecutor argued poses a danger to the community.
Burch said that while Littman “may have uniquely posed some sort of danger to Mrs. Penico,” he has not found any evidence suggesting the defendant is a danger to anyone else.
Manoukian called the move “extremely unusual” for someone convicted of voluntary manslaughter.
The judge barred Littman from traveling outside of Contra Costa County from now until his March 7 sentencing. He no longer lives next-door to the Penicos.
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