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Merced murder trial takes unexpected turn as missing witness appears in court

MERCED - The trial of accused killer James White was rocked by a seismic development Thursday, as a key witness who had gone missing appeared in court, giving testimony that could be a deciding factor in the case’s outcome.

Benito Aguirre told jurors his version of what happened March 8, 2007, the day Stephen Jackson was fatally shot at G Street and Cone Avenue.

White, who is accused of killing Jackson, testified earlier this week he shot the victim twice by accident as he and Aguirre, a passer-by, struggled with a .32-caliber Derringer handgun.

When Aguirre took the stand Thursday, he told jurors there was never a struggle between White and himself, saying the defendant single-handedly killed Jackson.

Under questioning from Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II, Aguirre said he saw White attack Jackson with a club. Jackson blocked the strike with his arm and a scuffle broke out between the two men, Aguirre testified.

Jackson got the upper hand in the fight, Aguirre said, and as White fell to the ground, he saw several objects fall from the defendant’s pockets. He recognized one of the objects to be a small gun. As White crawled on the ground, trying to grab the gun, Aguirre said he tried to kick it out of the way to keep the fight from getting out of control. But White reached the gun first. “He beat me to it,” Aguirre recalled.

White then aimed the gun at him, Aguirre testified. “When he pointed the gun at me … I just scattered and went for cover,” he told jurors. Aguirre said White then turned the gun on Jackson and fired the fatal shots.

Aguirre’s testimony is significant because much of the defense’s case is based upon White’s testimony he and Aguirre struggled for control of the gun. White claimed the gun went off twice during the struggle, killing Jackson.

The atmosphere in the courtroom became tense as White’s attorney, Jeffrey Tenenbaum, unleashed a blitzkrieg of questions at Aguirre. “You grabbed the defendant and (the gun) discharged, correct?” Tenenbaum said.

“No,” Aguirre replied.

The questioning turned into a verbal joust between attorney and witness and became contentious at times, with both raising their voices.

“Sir, I am not trying to trick you,” Tenenbaum maintained.

“Oh, yes you are,” Aguirre shot back.

Tenenbaum asked if Aguirre could even recognize White.

“You never forget a man that points a gun at you,” Aguirre replied.

Although Aguirre had been subpoenaed to testify in the trial, up until Thursday he had been a no-show with several outstanding warrants for his arrest, including making terrorist threats and stalking.

But Aguirre said he learned the district attorney’s office was looking for him. He was also called by a defense investigator last weekend.

After speaking with a close friend, Aguirre said, he decided to call Morse on Thursday to say he would appear in court. Merced police detectives picked him up Thursday morning and brought him to court.

“I’m here because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Tenenbaum asked if Morse had made Aguirre any promises in exchange for his testimony. Aguirre said he had not.

Aguirre testified he had known Jackson in passing because they had attended the same grammar school.

Prosecutors say White was enraged after Jackson began dating his ex-girlfriend, culminating in the fight.

Several witnesses have said Jackson’s killing was preceded by numerous death threats from White.

Jackson and his girlfriend had a restraining order against White at the time of the killing.

White is charged with first-degree murder with an enhancement for discharging a firearm. He also is charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and possessing a prohibited weapon.

If convicted, he faces life in prison.

Closing arguments from attorneys in the case are scheduled for today.

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