At all of five-foot-three and 125 pounds, metal worker Manuel Acosta clearly was no physical match for the colleague he insists bullied him for years — a man who weighed in at 423 pounds.
Acosta contends he acted in self-defense the night in May 2010 when he shotgunned Jose Valdez to death at a Medley factory — reloading and firing at least 10 shots.
But Miami-Dade prosecutors say the 69-year-old Acosta is a cold-blooded killer. He chased Valdez, a giant man but unarmed, through the business “like a hunter stalking his prey,” ending his life with two close-range shots to the head, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday.
“Jose Valdez was on the ground begging for his life,” Assistant State Attorney Paige Saperstein said during opening statements on the first day of Acosta’s trial.
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But defense attorneys insist that Acosta “fought for his life” in fatally shooting the “massive” Valdez, who had punched and kicked Acosta for years before that night.
The final confrontation was sparked when Valdez, at some point armed with a pipe, hurled a glass bottle at his diminutive co-worker, assistant public defender Lauren Krasnoff told jurors.
“To save his own life, Mr. Acosta was forced to kill Mr. Valdez,” Krasnoff said.
Acosta is charged with first-degree murder with a firearm and faces up to life in prison if convicted in the latest test of the state’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law.
Florida’s self-defense law has been much-scrutinized in recent years after lawmakers in 2005 gave citizens more leeway to kill in the face of “imminent death or great bodily harm.” The law eliminated a citizen’s duty to retreat before using deadly force.
Critics have long said the law fosters a shoot-first atmosphere and gives criminals a pass on justice. The law also gave judges more authority to grant immunity to defendants they deem to have acted in self-defense.
In Acosta’s case, his lawyers chose not to ask a judge to dismiss the case, but instead went straight to jurors.
Acosta and Valdez, 50, worked at the San Judas Tadeo Foundry in the industrial Northwest Miami-Dade town of Medley. The small factory, with about six employees, produces metal goods.
Acosta worked at the factory about 15 years, and lived with his four dogs in a trailer at the property. Valdez, who slept in a room inside a foundry warehouse, worked there about four years.
Factory owner Alfonso Vega told jurors their relationship “was a good one” — and that Acosta never complained about mistreatment.
“They used to be talking every every day, like normal people,” Vega said. “They didn’t argue every day.”
But defense lawyers say the bigger man “became an abuser,” hitting and kicking not only Acosta but his dogs as well. The night of the fatal shooting, Acosta had been cleaning his shotgun when Valdez hurled a bottle and “charged at him,” Krasnoff said.
Prosecutors say Acosta, outside of the foundry, shot Valdez twice. Valdez ran into the building and was found collapsed atop some crates, with no weapons in or near his hand, Saperstein said.
A police officer told jurors Wednesday that at the crime scene, Acosta excitedly admitted he killed Valdez because he had grown tired of the abuse, but did not say the man had a weapon.
Trial continues Thursday before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Maria Elena Verde.