Evidence shows two East Palo Alto young men engaged in a "mutual gun battle" during a December street brawl that left one woman dead, and both can be tried for murder, a San Mateo County Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday.
After a two-day preliminary hearing for Mafi Lutui, 18, and Absalom Tuimavave, 19, Judge Jonathan Karesh found the evidence presented by prosecutors sufficient to try them both for the shooting death of Lutui's cousin Melevea Fifita, 19, in the 2700 block of Fordham Street at around 10:30 p.m. on Dec. 29.
Both could face up to life in prison if convicted, according to prosecutors.
Authorities who investigated the shooting reported both men accidentally struck the women they may have come to defend in the fight.
According to police, Fifita, also of East Palo Alto, and Tuimavave's sister Seu became involved in a fight between several women at around 10:30 p.m., after which Lutui and Tuimavave arrived with guns and began shooting at each other.
Forensic evidence points to Fifita being fatally struck during the fray by a bullet from Lutui's handgun, according to Deputy District Attorney Sean Gallagher, while Seu Tuimavave, 22, survived being hit in the leg by a shotgun shell fired by her brother Absalom, he said.
"They were shooting at each other, not trying to protect the girls," Gallagher contended.
Tuimivave's attorney Savas Leukedis and Lutui's attorney Tom Deremigio each claimed their client had acted in self-defense, and that the other shot first.
"There is enough evidence that there was a mutual gun battle" between the two, Karesh concluded after hearing testimony from forensic and firearms experts, and from eyewitnesses to the shootings. A death could have been "expected" as a result of the gunfire, he added.
Under a rule of "transferred intent," Gallagher said, two people can be tried for murder if they shot at each other and one of them fatally struck a bystander.
Both men in this case will also be tried for attempted murder for shooting at each other, Gallagher said. Tuimavave is also charged with assault with a deadly weapon for striking his sister.
Lutui, who was 17 at the time, is being charged as an adult.
Lutui and Tuimavave are being held without bail and will be arraigned in superior court on Sept. 14 to set a trial date.
The shootings provoked tensions between the Tongan and Samoan communities in East Palo Alto that civic leaders tried to ease earlier this year with a series of gatherings and meetings involving youth and adults.
Those tensions were still evident during the course of the two-day hearing as members of both communities attended and were warned by the judge and sheriff's deputies not to disrupt the proceedings.