MARTINEZ -- A Contra Costa County jury on Friday found Michael Littman, of Alamo, guilty of voluntary manslaughter, assault and stalking in the death of next-door neighbor Doris Penico after a physical confrontation over a shared driveway in an upscale gated community caused her to fall and hit her head.
But the jury found Littman, a 60-year-old real estate broker and accountant, not guilty of second-degree murder in the case, which included revealing surveillance and phone videos of the confrontation. Littman, who sat calmly as he listened to the court clerk read the verdict in a Martinez courtroom, faces up to 12 years, eight months in state prison.
"I think it's some justice for our family," Doris Penico's husband, Victor Penico, said after the verdict. "I believe in my heart that Mr. Littman was guilty of second-degree murder."
His family's life has been changed forever, he said in his first public comments since his wife of 33 years died.
"It's too overwhelming," Penico said of the loss. "From the time I met her, she's basically the only woman in my life, and it's not the same anymore."
Prosecutor Molly Manoukian sought a murder conviction against Littman, who she said pushed Doris Penico, a 59-year-old retired attorney, as Littman was chasing her husband on Aug. 27, 2012 -- the latest confrontation in a years-long battle over use of the shared driveway outside their houses on Stonegate Drive.
Doris Penico flew back 8 to 10 feet, her legs going parallel to the ground before her head struck the concrete. The impact fractured her skull, and she never regained consciousness.
"I am sincerely grateful for the hard work and commitment of this jury," Manoukian said outside the courtroom. "They held Mr. Littman accountable for killing Doris Penico and beating Victor Penico. Justice was served."
The defense described the fatal fall as a tragic accident and suggested Victor Penico, a tax attorney, had caused his wife's fall when he and Littman rushed past her. The prosecution, however, argued the shove was a deliberate act stemming from years of animosity between the neighbors.
Defense attorney Michael Cardoza had mixed emotions after the verdict, saying prosecutors originally filed first-degree murder charges against Littman.
"I'm not happy, but, hell, he could have got 25 to life for that," Cardoza said outside the courtroom.
"These were two neighbors, people who couldn't get along for various and sundry reasons. It's a sad commentary, but Mr. and Mrs. Penico were equally to blame," he said.
Friends of Littman, including some who wept in court after the verdict, spoke out on his behalf, saying he was not a violent person.
"We're really shocked at the verdict," said Kelly Madden, of Walnut Creek. "The video showed Michael did not push her."
The critical piece of evidence was a video shot by Littman on his iPhone the day of the fatal incident. The video recorded Doris Penico getting into her car to go somewhere. She repeatedly demanded the filming stop, then summoned Victor Penico out of their house. Victor Penico got close to Littman and accused him of harassing his wife before putting his hand up to block Littman's filming.
Manoukian argued that Littman was setting up a defense for himself early in the confrontation because he's heard on the video saying, "You hit me," a split-second before stunning Victor Penico with a blow to the head.
The confrontation was also captured by the Penicos' surveillance camera, which showed Victor Penico never fought back against Littman as he was chased down the driveway and then pummeled about the head and body, Manoukian said.
Throughout the beating, Littman said, "Stop hitting me," and Manoukian argued he did that in the hope that his statements were being recorded by the discarded iPhone, not knowing that the attack was also being recorded by the Penicos' sophisticated surveillance system, which they installed after Littman once drove his vehicle toward them in the same driveway.
Manoukian said Littman had been filming and taking pictures of Doris Penico doing mundane tasks in and out of her house for years to harass and intimidate her. Cardoza said his client was documenting the neighbors' activities in anticipation of litigation over use of a shared driveway easement. He argued that Littman and visitors to his home were being harassed by Doris Penico.
Cardoza described the incident as a schoolyard-style brawl and argued that Victor Penico provoked Littman by getting in his face. He argued that Victor Penico's injuries were superficial and that this was a civil, not criminal, case.
However, after three days of deliberations, a jury of six women and six men reached the verdict. Wearing a gray suit, striped shirt, red tie and glasses, a composed Littman spoke only briefly, agreeing to waive time for his sentencing.
After the verdict, Judge Charles Burch, in an unusual move, allowed Littman to remain out of custody on $1 million bail, despite opposition by Manoukian. Littman still owns the home next door to the Penicos.
"I request that you protect the community and remand the defendant," Manoukian asked the judge.
However, Burch said Littman's case was unique in that he targeted one family, and the greater community was not threatened. "This is not your run-of-the-mill defendant you see day in and day out," Burch said, referring to Littman's clean criminal record.
With his passport already surrendered, Littman was ordered to not leave Contra Costa County until his March 7 sentencing.
Staff writer Jennifer Modenessi contributed to this report. Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026.