Accused lover goes free

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CRIME / Calls on cops to reopen investigation into Naglic's death James Dubro / Toronto Xtra / Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The murder trail of Ivan Mendez-Romero, charged in the death of his longtime lover Janko Naglic, came to a quick close on Mar 4 when the jury acquitted Mendez-Romero after just four hours of deliberation.

It was the shortest deliberation time in a murder case," defence lawyer Laurence Cohen said he's seen in his experience.

Naglic, the original owner of the Barn, was found dead in his Balliol St home on Oct 27, 2004. He had duct tape covering his mouth and nose; forensic pathologist Toby Rose testified that he died of "smothering."

On the day following the verdict Cohen and fellow defence lawyer Greg Lafontaine held a press conference with Mendez-Romero. It was the first chance for Mendez-Romero to tell his side of the story; he was not put on the stand, nor did the defence call any other witnesses to respond to the Crown's largely circumstantial case.

"Why would I want to do this?" asked Mendez-Romero of Naglic's killing, according to the Toronto Star. "I saved Janko's life many times diving. He used to drink. I take care of the guy. I'm very much baby-sitting the guy for the last 10 years. What reason would I have to threaten someone that I take care of... that I have no problems with at all?"

Mendez-Romero, 38, confirmed that he was offered the opportunity to plead guilty to manslaughter and be eligible for parole in less than two years, but said he rejected the offer because he was innocent.

According to accounts by the mainstream press Mendez-Romero was emotional and even tearful during the press conference, and told reporters that there were no problems between himself and Naglic. The couple had been together since 1994 when they met in Mendez-Romero's native Cuba while Naglic was there on holiday.

Much of the testimony heard during the month-long trial revolved around Mendez-Romero's 2004 marriage to Victoria Bunda. The Crown argued that the relationship was a source of conflict between the two men, leading to a confrontation at a Minden, Ontario hotel in September 2004.

At the press conference Mendez-Romero told reporters that since his arrest in 2005 he and Bunda have divorced, though they remain "good friends."

Mendez-Romero is calling on police to reopen the investigation into Naglic's death. But Det Wayne Banks, lead homicide investigator in the case, says there's nothing left to investigate and that all evidence led to Mendez-Romero.

"But we have to respect the jury," said Banks upon hearing the verdict.

In Judge Gladys Pardu's four-and-a-half-hour charge she told the jury to consider the evidence alone and not be clouded by moral judgments.

"In order to convict Ivan Mendez-Romero of any offence you must be satisfied that his guilt of that offence is the only rational conclusion to be drawn from the evidence as a whole," said Pardu. "Your function is not to judge someone's sexual morality or sexual fidelity."

She stressed that the burden of proof lay with the Crown.

"Crown counsel must satisfy you of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," she said. "Proof of probable or likely guilt is not proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

The Crown presented a series of witnesses who were not able to report firsthand on events and alleged arguments between Naglic and Mendez-Romero, but only to repeat what Naglic told them about his relationship with Mendez-Romero. There was no forensic evidence to link Mendez-Romero to Naglic's death.

In his summation Cohen compared the testimony to "coffee shop conversation or after-dinner chatter."

"It was a strange trial where hearsay evidence was produced as real evidence," he concluded.

While the Crown argued that Mendez-Romero killed Naglic because he feared the loss of the lavish lifestyle that his relationship with Naglic afforded him, the defence countered that, since a change to Naglic's will in 2000, he was worth more to Mendez-Romero alive.

"[Mendez-Romero] needed Janko Naglic around to keep the money coming in," said Cohen, calling their financial entanglement "almost an absence of motive."

Testimony revealed that following Naglic's death Mendez-Romero received a $60,000 RRSP, Naglic's Merecedes Benz convertible and a life insurance policy worth about $20,000.

In addition Mendez-Romero sued Naglic's estate for $1 million in spousal support. Prior to the trial that sum had been negotiated down to $150,000.

Cohen further countered the Crown's testimony, which painted a deteriorating relationship between Mendez-Romero and Naglic, by pointing to testimony from a mutual friend, Tim Burke, who said Mendez-Romero behaved in a loving manner toward Naglic at a party just a week before Naglic's death. He also noted that, just prior to his death, Naglic made arrangements to go on vacation with Mendez-Romero.

Cohen argued that Mendez-Romero knew that "Naglic told everyone his dirty laundry" because Naglic was a "flamboyant extrovert" who told "everyone everything," whereas Mendez-Romero was an introvert who "kept it all to himself."

"Not a single witness can speak to evidence of violence between Mendez-Romero and Naglic," said Cohen. "There was no evidence of violence."

Cohen asked why none of Naglic's friends did anything about the threats Mendez-Romero is alleged to have made against Naglic.

"Did they not take it seriously?" asked Cohen. "Or perhaps Janko didn't take it seriously? If Naglic took the threats seriously, why did he walk into his place where he was going to be killed?

"Naglic was not afraid of my client. Often his words were contrary to his actions," said Cohen, adding that it was "not logical for Naglic, if he were so afraid and worried, to invite Ivan Mendez-Romero to the luncheon on the day of his death," as witnesses testified he did.

In his closing arguments Cohen also revisited the theory that Naglic's death could have been the result of a police shakedown. Naglic, whose business had been the subject of police attention for years, went public in April 2004 about an alleged extortion attempt involving an unidentified police officer.

Cohen said a cop might have been involved in the murder, "but it is unsupported by the evidence. I'm not going to this jury without evidence.

"I don't need to solve this murder," Cohen added. Indeed, unless new evidence comes to light, it seems likely that Naglic's tragic death will be labelled unsolved.

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