By FRED SHUSTER

  City News Service

LOS ANGELES (CNS) – An off-duty deputy U.S. marshal had been downing tequila and fighting with his stripper wife in a Los Angeles alleyway shortly before fatally shooting a stranger in the back, a federal prosecutor told a jury today, but the defense countered that the lawman was forced to shoot in order to save his own life.

Matthew Itkowitz had been out with his then-wife, drinking two-for-one tequila shots and arguing about their failing marriage, when 26-year-old Ryan Gonzalez tried to intervene, according to attorneys on both sides.

“The defendant and his wife were fighting — yelling and screaming — and Matthew Itkowitz was really angry,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret Carter told a downtown jury in her opening statement.

The crying woman ran toward four strangers — Gonzalez and another man who were hanging out behind the Melrose Avenue tattoo parlor where they worked, and two female customers, Carter said.

Defense attorney Anne Hwang agreed, adding in her opening statement that the wife was “yelling, `Help me, help me … he’s beating me.’ And Ryan Gonzalez is one of those two men, and he steps forward.”

At that point, the defense and prosecution narratives diverge in their account of what took place during the two-minute alleyway confrontation before midnight on March 5, 2008.

Itkowitz — who formerly worked at the courthouse where he is being tried — is charged with deprivation of rights under color of law, using a firearm in relation to a crime of violence and two counts of obstruction of justice. The obstruction charges stem from alleged misleading statements he made to Los Angeles police detectives and his own supervisor about the shooting.

The 45-year-old deputy marshal contends that he acted in self-defense after Gonzalez punched him in the face and threatened him with a loaded gun.

After Gonzalez punched him and proceeded to move away from the altercation, Itkowitz made the choice to “to draw his semi-automatic handgun,” Carter said.

But Hwang countered that the lawman had no choice in the moments after he was “viciously bashed in the face twice” and knocked to the ground, and Gonzalez held an “unregistered gun to his head.”

The defense attorney suggested that everyone involved was intoxicated — Itkowitz, his ex-wife Alexandra Escobedo, and Gonzalez — and emotions were high.

Carter played for the jury footage from an alley surveillance camera that appeared to offer a bird’s eye view of the two men — after Gonzalez punched Itkowitz — as they moved away from the area of the tattoo parlor.

According to prosecutors, the victim initially walked toward Itkowitz, who backed away. After about 35 feet, Gonzalez reached into a pants pocket and pulled out a small silver handgun, which he briefly pointed at the defendant’s head.

Itkowitz then brushed Gonzalez’s arm aside, and it appears from the video that Gonzalez put the gun back into his pocket.

“Nothing that happened justifies a gun to the head — and when that gun came out, everything changed,” Hwang told jurors.

Hwang maintained that Gonzalez had been attempting to frighten the defendant by using a “prison-yard strut” and the gang-related question, “Where are you from?” which the defense attorney called “a classic intimidation tactic.” But Itkowitz wasn’t taking the bait, and attempted to “de-escalate” the situation, telling Gonzalez, “I’m a cop,” and showing his credentials, Hwang said.

The men talked for a short time before Gonzalez turned his back and started to walk away, Carter told the jury.

The defendant allowed Gonzalez to take about 10 steps before calling to him, and he started back, while Itkowitz waited with his hand near his weapon, which was hidden behind his right leg, the prosecutor said. Once Gonzalez neared, Itkowitz pulled his weapon and began shooting, she said.

“He made a choice — not to walk away, but to kill Ryan Gonzalez,” Carter said.

After the first shot, Gonzalez turned, ran, stumbled and fell to the ground, picked himself up and ran further, then fell again, while being chased by Itkowitz, Carter said.

Gonzalez rose up one final time, ran to the mouth of the alley, turned the corner onto the sidewalk, collapsed to the pavement and bled to death, she said.

He was shot five times, the prosecutor said.

But the defense told jurors that Gonzalez was the aggressor.

“As long as Ryan Gonzalez is up and armed, he’s still a threat,” Hwang said in explaining why her client fired five times, including the fatal shot that punctured the victim’s side and traveled through his abdomen.

“If Matthew Itkowitz hadn’t shot, maybe he wouldn’t be (alive) today,” Hwang said.

Carter said that following the shooting — before he knew that a surveillance camera had captured the scene — Itkowitz falsely told police detectives that he had been attacked by two “Hispanic males” and shot Gonzalez immediately after being knocked to the ground, while the victim still had a gun pointed at him.

Itkowitz also lied to his supervisor at the marshal’s office, saying that the shooting was justified because he was being threatened, Carter alleged.

The trial is expected to last at least two weeks.

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