Update: Michael Diggs entered a no-contest plea to a murder charge July 6, 2015, according to Alameda County court records online. He was later found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Original story: A judge has freed a woman arrested after the killing of a Berkeley man in February, but ruled Thursday that her boyfriend must face the murder charge against him in the case.
Late Thursday afternoon, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Thomas Reardon said enough evidence had been presented for 29-year-old Michael Diggs to continue to face prosecution in the Feb. 28 homicide of Sylvan Fuselier in his West Berkeley home.
A woman police said was Diggs’ accomplice in the case, 41-year-old Kneitawnye Sessoms, will not be prosecuted, and is set to be released from custody. She has been incarcerated without bail since March 31. Her attorney, James Giller, said her involvement amounted to “pure speculation,” and the judge ultimately agreed to drop the murder charge against her.
The preliminary hearing against the couple began Tuesday morning. Late Thursday, Reardon ruled that Diggs will face the murder charge against him, including the allegation that he used a deadly weapon identified as a hatchet to kill 54-year-old Fuselier in his Addison Street apartment.
But Reardon also dropped two special circumstances from the charge against Diggs. Those allegations asserted that Diggs robbed and burglarized Fuselier during the course of the murder, which could have led to a stiffer sentence had they been pursued. The judge said there was enough ambiguity about those elements to drop them from the prosecution.
In closing arguments, Alameda County district attorney’s office prosecutor Chris Lamiero questioned the veracity of the confession Diggs gave police about the crime. Diggs told police he “snapped” after Fuselier came on to Sessoms while she was naked in Fuselier’s shower.
Lamiero said the physical evidence showed that Fuselier was on the floor when he was attacked, either sleeping or watching television, and that it was Lamiero’s belief that both Diggs and Sessoms had set upon him, intent on taking advantage of the intoxicated man. (A toxicology report that was part of his autopsy put Fuselier’s blood alcohol level at .34, which is considered a severe level of intoxication.)
According to Diggs, the two men had smoked methamphetamine together the night Fuselier was killed. Diggs said he sold the drugs to Fuselier inside the man’s apartment in the 1100 block of Addison Street, not far from San Pablo Avenue.
Lamiero said, according to his interpretation of the physical evidence, Diggs had hit Fuselier in the head with a hatchet while Sessoms stabbed him with a knife. He said Fuselier attempted to block those blows with his right hand and arm. The coroner found defensive wounds in those areas of his body during the autopsy.
Lamiero said there was no physical evidence to show that Diggs had attacked Fuselier as he came out of his bathoom, which is what Diggs had described to police during a recorded statement in early April. Lamiero said the blood found by police on the scene, and the position of Fuselier’s body, led him to conclude the attack happened while Fuselier was reclining on the floor in his living room, a fair distance from the bathroom where the alleged sexual assault attempt took place. Lamiero said Diggs’ assertion that he had stabbed Fuselier after killing him also was suspect.
Throughout his interview with Berkeley police detectives in early April, Diggs said he would do whatever it took to ensure that Sessoms was freed from jail. He said he would “railroad” himself and say whatever he needed to say to take the heat off his girlfriend, Sessoms. He said repeatedly that he wanted her to be released, and told police she played no role in the violence.
At the conclusion of the preliminary hearing, exactly what Sessoms did the night of Fuselier’s killing ultimately remained unclear. The judge pointed out that Sessoms had lied to police by saying she did not know Fuselier and had never been to his apartment, but added that those statements alone were not enough to prove she had been involved with harming the Berkeley man.
Thursday, Reardon also denied two motions by Diggs’ defense attorney, who sought to throw out his client’s lengthy confession to police. Drew Steckler of the Alameda County public defender’s office argued that authorities had held Diggs too long without cause and without any sort of public hearing, and that police had coerced him into making his confession in exchange for the promise of leniency for Sessoms.
Diggs initially was arrested, for possession of burglary tools and parole violation, on March 12. He did not appear before a judge until April, which the defense argued was a violation of his due process.
But Reardon, in the end, said he wasn’t convinced by either argument, and ruled that a video of the confession should remain part of the evidence against Diggs.
Diggs is set to return to court Nov. 6 at 9 a.m. to be arraigned on the charge against him.
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