San Diego Death Case Goes to the Jury

SAN DIEGO (CN) — The attorney for a man accused of killing his wealthy brother’s girlfriend told jurors Tuesday that even if they find the woman did not commit suicide, but was murdered, there is no evidence implicating his client in her death.

During the second day of closing arguments in the month-long civil trial  for wrongful death attorney Dan Webb said there has been no evidence or testimony from 29 witnesses connecting his client Adam Shacknai to the death of Rebecca Zahau.

“It is not evidence that because Adam stayed in the guesthouse that he committed the murder,” Webb told the jury. “The plaintiffs have changed their speculative theories when confronted with actual facts.

“They started the case with a theory because they have no evidence, and then they change their theory. … They have no case.”

Adam Shacknai found Zahau hanging from a balcony off his brother’s Spreckels Mansion in Coronado on the morning of July 13, 2011. Zahau was naked, bound and gagged and the message “She saved him can you save her” was painted in black on the bedroom door to the room she occupied.

She died just two days after an accident in which her boyfriend Jonah Shacknai’s 6-year-old son Max fell from a second-story banister in the 27-room mansion and suffered fatal injuries. The mansion, a Coronado landmark, was built with money from a sugar fortune.

Law enforcement officials theorized that Zahau was despondent because she was the only adult at the home when Max fell.

Her death was ruled a suicide, but Zahau’s family maintains she was murdered. They sued Adam Shacknai in 2013 for wrongful death and battery. The Zahau family is represented by Keith Greer.

Adam Shacknai’s attorney Webb said in Superior Court Judge Katherine Bacal’s courtroom Tuesday that DNA testing and fingerprint and footprint analyses point to “Rebecca Zahau being involved in her own death.” He said investigators interpreted the cryptic message on the door to be a reference to Max’s accident and an “interpretation of God” saving her. Webb called it a “suicide message.”

Zahau had risk factors for suicide, Webb said, including being abused as a child, and by her ex-husband, and having a tense relationship with her boyfriend Jonah Shacknai’s oldest daughter. Zahau had taken notes and written letters on her phone in the months before her death, discussing feeling hopeless, struggling with insomnia and crying frequently.

A rape kit came back negative with no vaginal trauma, Webb said, in disputing that a steak knife found with her menstrual blood on the wooden handle had been used to assault her.

“If somebody did that, it’s not Adam,” Webb said, dismissing the knife as “some huge piece of evidence of a sexual assault.”

Webb said the overhand knot and clove hitch used to bind Zahau’s hands and feet were so simple that “birds and gorillas” are capable of tying the knots. He disputed the plaintiffs’ argument that knots were unique to the nautical industry. Adam Shacknai worked as a captain on the Mississippi River.

Webb said that while there’s “no question the evidence of self-tying here is very, very clear,” he acknowledged the strange circumstances surrounding Zahau’s death.

“The way Rebecca committed suicide is very difficult for us to understand,” Webb said.

But said that does not mean Adam Shacknai killed her.

“This is not evidence against Adam; this is just Mr. Greer attacking whether it was an appropriate decision to conclude suicide.”

Webb denied the Zahau family’s contention she had been hit on the head, sexually assaulted and strangled to death before she was hanged. He said that had Zahau been strangled, there would be fingerprint marks on her neck. Four small hemorrhages on her head could have occurred during the autopsy and were not severe enough to indicate Zahau had been hit with a blunt object, Webb added.

“If those hemorrhages are evidence of that, so be it, because there’s no evidence whatsoever Adam did it,” Webb said.

Jurors received the case just before lunch Tuesday. They were to continue deliberating Wednesday.

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