SAN DIEGO – Was it a murder provoked by rage and revenge? Or was it a gay love triangle that ended badly?
Jurors began deliberating Thursday afternoon in the homicide trial of Joshua James Larson, 38, of San Diego, who is accused in the 2011 brutal beating death of Jason “Cowboy” Huggins. Larson, who was a model on the cover of Playgirl in 2001, is also accused of assault with a deadly weapon in connection with the attack on Nathan Meza, who was with Huggins at the time of the crimes.
The prosecutor, Makenzie R. Harvey, painted a picture of an angry, revengeful Larson who was determined to get even with Huggins, whose testimony during a criminal trial helped convict Larson. She noted that Larson served 88 days in jail for that conviction, then another 79 days at another time after Larson violated his probation.
The defense attorney, Peter Will, outlined a much different scenario in which Huggins was the victim of a gay love triangle that ended tragically with domestic violence. He said Chad Lucas and Nathan Meza were both in love with Huggins, and that Lucas had been rejected by Huggins on the afternoon of the vicious beating and had admitted during testimony that he had laid his hands on Huggins that day. The defense attorney blamed Lucas for the death of Huggins.
Who was “Cowboy” Huggins?
Huggins was a tall and lanky man who hailed from Clarksville, Tenn. After living in Garland, Texas, near Dallas, he moved to San Diego, where he became a popular figure in Hillcrest and North Park over the past decade. Everybody called him “Cowboy” because he always wore his trademark cowboy hat, leather boots and big belt buckle.
At the time of his death, at the age of 31, Huggins was down on his luck and homeless, living in a makeshift tent compound in the “Camelot” canyon near Washington Street and state Highway 163.
The news of the brutal attack on Huggins shocked the local LGBT community, and people quickly rallied around Cowboy by holding vigils while he clung to life at the hospital. Huggins’ aunt and uncle flew into San Diego to be with him at the hospital, and were embraced by the LGBT community. But Huggins had severe brain damage from the beating, and he died surrounded by his two relatives and a few friends.
What happened at the trial
The trial, which began on Sept. 5, has been marked by a lack of forensic evidence or fingerprints on the large rock used to bludgeon Huggins on the head. Huggins died on July 6, 2011 at a hospital in Hillcrest, two weeks after being attacked.
Harvey, the prosecutor, acknowledged to the jury that her case against Larson was not full of forensic evidence, a la “CSI.” But she said she had one credible witness, Nathan Meza, and other important evidence that would prove her case.
"Revenge, retaliation, and payback is why this man [referring to an on-screen photo of Cowboy] is dead. He held the defendant accountable for his actions and now he is dead," Harvey said in her closing statement.
"Can a single witness’s testimony be sufficient?" she asked. "Nathan Meza's [testimony] could be sufficient. Rarely do you have one person who witnessed most of the events, who also has lots of pieces of evidence that corroborate his testimony."
GPS locations provided by cell phones appear to play a major role is establishing the whereabouts of the various actors in this courtroom drama.
Both sides agreed that Huggins and Larson crossed paths at the McDonald’s in Hillcrest between 4:16 and 4:48 pm on June 22, the afternoon just before the attack occurred. This is confirmed by cell phone records and by a McDonald’s security camera that showed Larson looking at Huggins without any words being exchanged. Meza was with Huggins at the fast-food restaurant, and the two men were seen walking back to the canyon.
Security footage from cameras at Uptown Condos shows Larson following the two men from McDonald’s. The prosecutor said two witnesses saw Larson taking a round-about trail into the canyon. One of them testified that Larson wanted to know the location of Huggins’ tent and later, in dramatic fashion, she pointed to Larson and identified him as the man she saw that day in the canyon.
Meza testified that Larson attacked him first with a smooth, flat rock and that he fled from the tent after Larson flicked a lighter and threatened to burn them in their sleep. Meza went to a nearby hospital to seek treatment for injuries to his lip and face, admitted at 5:48 pm.
After the attack on Huggins, the victim crawled out of the canyon onto Washington Street, where a condo security camera caught him on tape. Because of the distance from the camera to the street, the footage is unclear and nearly impossible to identify anybody visually. But GPS again put Huggins in the vicinity at the time shown on the tape, making it likely that it was he who was standing there at about 6:02 pm.
Huggins called 911 at 6:12 pm, according to testimony. Paramedics testified that Huggins told them that he was hit in the head with a smooth, flat rock. Doctors who treated Huggins and Meza testified that their injuries seemed to be by the same type of weapon.
Love triangle introduced as motive
During the trial, Lucas testified that he did not harm Huggins. The prosecutor pointed out that Lucas was very protective of Huggins at the hospital, spending many hours there at his bedside. She also said Lucas attended candlelight vigils and the funeral for Huggins.
But the defense attorney told the jury that Lucas wanted “Cowboy” to get rid of Meza and that “Chad loved Cowboy.” At the same time, Will accused Lucas of lying to the jury because he had testified that he did not have a relationship with Huggins.
“The detective testified that they [Lucas and Huggins] were a romantic couple,” Will told the jury. Lucas was rejected that afternoon by Huggins. He had a temper. “Chad testified he put his hands on Cowboy,” Will said. “This was domestic violence.”
Will said evidence pointed to Lucas being in the canyon at 5:30 pm, around the time of the attack.
The defense attorney also used the GPS evidence to suggest that Larson was walking east on Washington Street toward El Cajon Boulevard at 5:38 pm, and could not have been in the canyon at the time of the attack.
Will suggested the San Diego police detectives mishandled the case, “jumping to conclusions” because of the bad blood between Larson and Huggins.
The prosecutor introduced jailhouse recordings between Larson and his mother. Harvey asked the jury to consider what Larson does not say in those recordings, which are automatically made by authorities.
He says: "Like, I killed this guy on purpose or something? You know what? What difference is it gonna make? My life is over."
He never once does he say to his mom, I didn't do it! He also said: "What happened there wasn't supposed to happen. It wasn't supposed to turn out that way."
His mom asked him in a call: “Do you know this person who is in the hospital?” Larson replies: "This is the guy who sold me drugs and stole my wallet." His mom expressed disappointment that he "hadn't let it go yet" even though he told her that he had let the anger go earlier.
After the defense rested, Harvey gave her rebuttal to the jury and accused Will of “trying to make it look like a TV movie of the week,” she said.
“There was no violent love triangle,” she said. “Where was the injury to Chad? There is no evidence to support this theory.”
She suggested the defense was “attacking the phone records because they are damaging to their case.” She said the defense could not give Larson an alibi and that there was no evidence that he was shopping at Ralph’s or out for a drive at the time of the attack.
“The phone records place him at a crime scene,” Harvey said.
And she pooh-poohed the defense’s effort to minimize Huggins’ role in Larson’s conviction and jail time. “The reason he was on probation is Cowboy. It was his testimony.”
She concluded her rebuttal by stressing the importance of the jail conversations between Larson and his mother.
“His mom’s comments in the jail calls are damaging,” Harvey said.
Judge Theodore M. Weathers is presiding over the trial.
(Ken Williams is Editor in Chief at SDGLN and Ben Cartwright is a Staff Writer.)