A Gay man was convicted of involuntary manslaughter March 21 after a judge acquitted him of second-degree murder in the forced feeding of his ill husband, Blake Synowski, in their Rancho San Diego home.
Tommy Wayne Zupner, 67, waived his right to have a jury trial with his attorney, Paul Pfingst, who is the former District Attorney for two terms in San Diego.
Synowski, 62, was a dentist in El Cajon, and his obituary said he helped found a dental clinic in Hillcrest for people with HIV. Synowski and Zupner were together for 15 years before his death on Sept. 17, 2019.
El Cajon Superior Court Judge Robert Amador, who originally heard the preliminary hearing in 2020, found Zupner not guilty of second-degree murder after Deputy District Attorney Meredith Pro rested her case after presenting 15 witnesses for six days.
Zupner then pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, and Amador accepted the plea, ending the trial. Sentencing is set for April 22.
Pfingst said his client could receive probation or get a maximum term of four years in state prison. Zupner has already served 11 months in jail before his bail was reduced to $250,000 and he posted bond.
Pfingst said if Zupner were sentenced to two years in prison, he would only have to serve one more month before he would be paroled because he would be given credit for the 11 months already served.
“All I wanted was an involuntary manslaughter (charge) for two years,” said Pfingst, who argued from the start the murder charge was the wrong offense.
Pfingst said this was Zupner’s first opportunity to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter since the prosecutor was seeking a murder conviction.
Pfingst said he will ask for a sentence of home detention for Zupner instead of any jail time.
The defense attorney said he thought a judge considering this evidence was better than a jury because a jury might have been bothered by testimony about forced feeding with graphic photos.
“I did not know how a jury would react,” said Pfingst.
“A judge is better able to separate reckless conduct from negligent conduct,” said Pfingst. “This is negligent conduct.”
The cause of death was asphyxia, after Zupner force fed Synowski matzo crackers and water.
“Shoving food down someone’s throat could result in an obstructed airway,” argued Pro, adding that it was “unbelievable” that Zupner would not consider that dangerous.
“We all know that breathing is essential to life,” said Pro.
The prosecutor said it appeared to be a power struggle between the couple, and that Synowski had tried to get away from Zupner in the couple’s kitchen.
The autopsy showed that Synowski’s frenulum under his tongue was torn, and his lips were bruised. Deputies found he had no pulse and was not breathing while lying on the kitchen floor.
The victim’s two sisters testified in the trial, as did a number of sheriff’s deputies who responded to a 911 call at 10 p.m. from Zupner at their Explorer Road home.
Zupner’s words were heard on videos from deputies in which he said Synowski had been ill and had lost 20 pounds. “I was just trying to save his life!” said Zupner approximately 10 times to deputies.
A detective testified Synowski had a blood/alcohol level of .11 at the time of his death. Zupner had no alcohol or drugs in his system.
Zupner’s comments were recorded by the deputies’ body worn cameras which were admitted as evidence and heard by Amador. Deputies said Zupner was cooperative but also very upset. Pfingst said Zupner didn’t need to testify in the trial because his words at the scene were recorded and admitted as evidence.