Fresno man who killed in defense of friend pleads to manslaughter

The Fresno BeeJune 5, 2014 

Mike Tunnell

A Fresno man who admitted he stabbed a man to death in defense of his friend pleaded no contest Thursday to manslaughter and was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Branden Forrest, 25, will have to serve 85% of his sentence before he can be released, Fresno County Superior Court Judge W. Kent Hamlin said.

Forrest already has been in the Fresno County Jail for nearly a year.

The plea was hammered out after a jury deadlocked last month on whether Forrest had committed murder in the killing of Mike Tunnell, who was stabbed three times last summer outside Ewell's bar at Dakota and Blackstone avenues in central Fresno.

The jury found co-defendant Samuel Whitmore, 31, not guilty of the killing. But nine of the 12 jurors said Forrest, who testified he stabbed Tunnell in defense of an unarmed Whitmore, was guilty of second-degree murder. Because the jury was not unanimous, a mistrial was declared, giving prosecutor Jeff Dupras the option of re-trying Forrest.

Instead, Dupras and defense attorney Mark Siegel hammered out a plea agreement for manslaughter -- a crime Forrest accepted, because if he had been convicted of second-degree murder he would have faced 15 years to life in prison.

In accepting the no-contest plea, Hamlin said Forrest had "a honest but unreasonable belief" that he was entitled to kill Tunnell in defense of Whitmore. He also said the case illustrated the dangers of mixing "alcohol and weapons."

The killing of Tunnell on Aug. 14 was captured on video by surveillance cameras.

During the trial, Dupras said Forrest and Whitmore came to Ewell's armed with knives and had told the bartender they were looking for Tunnell. The bartender, a friend of Tunnell's, sent a text message to Tunnell, telling him Forrest and Whitmore were at the bar looking for him.

Forrest and Whitmore waited for Tunnell for more than two hours, Dupras said. When Tunnell arrived on a motorcycle, the defendants confronted him in the parking lot, he said.

After stabbing Tunnell, the two defendants drove off. They were arrested eight days later in Humboldt County after being caught fishing without a license.

On the witness stand, Whitmore and Forrest gave a different account: Whitmore wanted to fistfight Tunnell outside Ewell's because Tunnell had stolen tattoo equipment from the shop they ran together. But Tunnell showed up to the fight with a gun and two knives.

On the witness stand, Forrest said he, not Whitmore, stabbed Tunnell, because he feared Tunnell was going to kill Whitmore. Tunnell had choked Whitmore until he nearly passed out and cut Whitmore's face with a knife, Forrest told the jury.

The trial drew interest because 10 years ago Tunnell was a key witness against former Fresno State basketball star Terry Pettis, who is serving a life sentence for killing a college student in an apparent marijuana deal that went bad.

Police reports say Tunnell was there when Pettis shot Fresno City College student Rene Shannon Abbott in the head April 27, 2004, in an office-complex parking lot near Fresno State. Pettis had dropped out of school two weeks before the shooting.

Tunnell testified at Pettis' trial that Pettis shot Abbott. "I looked at him. I looked at the marijuana, and I threw (the marijuana) at him," Tunnell testified.

Tunnell was not charged in connection with the Pettis case and jurors weren't told of Tunnell's connection to it. Ironically, Hamlin was the judge who sentenced Pettis to life in prison in July 2006.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, or @beecourts on Twitter.

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