A California man who was found civilly liable on Wednesday in the 2011 death of his millionaire brother’s girlfriend — a decision at odds with a separate criminal investigation — says he is “disappointed” in the verdict and plans to appeal.
“I feel good about the case we just made,” Adam Shacknai told reporters outside a downtown San Diego courthouse. “I am standing tall. I am not worried about these posers. They got away with something once. They got lucky. I don’t think they are going to get lucky again.”
“If you value evidence, we made a good case,” he continued. “If you don’t value evidence, I guess we failed.”
Shacknai, 54, was found responsible by a civil jury in the death of Rebecca Zahau, the 32-year-old girlfriend of his brother Jonah, a pharmaceuticals executive.
In contrast to a criminal prosecution, in a civil suit jurors need only to find that it is more likely than not that the defendant is liable — rather than reaching a guilty verdict without any reasonable doubt.
The jury awarded Zahau’s family $5 million in punitive damages. Shacknai will also have to pay an additional $167,000 to them for the lost financial support that Zahau could have given to her mother and siblings.
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Describing the evidence at his civil trial as “completely made up,” Shacknai said Wednesday: “A lot worse things have happened to a lot better people, so this is nothing to me. I’m disappointed, but I got plenty of fight in me.”
Zahau’s relatives, via their attorney, have spoken out in similarly forceful terms.
“It isn’t about new evidence — the sheriff has had this evidence for seven years,” says the family’s attorney, C. Keith Greer. “What we did was take that same evidence and just put it in front of a jury.”
While authorities have long maintained that Zahau, a certified ophthalmic technician, hanged herself — even taking the unusual step of publicly releasing a video reenactment of how they believed her death occurred — her relatives suspected otherwise. They sued Shacknai in 2013 for wrongful death.
(The ex-wife of his brother and the ex-wife’s sister were also reportedly named as defendants but later dropped when evidence showed they were not present at the times crucial to the case, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.)
Zahau’s naked body was found hanging by a makeshift noose from a second-floor balcony in the courtyard of her boyfriend’s home, the fabled Spreckels mansion, on July 13, 2011. She was gagged and her hands and feet had been bound.
Shacknai, who staying at the home at the time, said he found Zahau hanging, cut her down and called 911.
Her body was discovered just hours after she allegedly accessed her voicemail on which was a message had been left about the grave condition of her boyfriend’s 6-year-old son Max, who was hospitalized after falling down a staircase in the home.
Zahau was the only adult present at the home during the incident. Max later died from his injuries.
Echoing Shacknai’s comments after the verdict, his attorney, Dan Webb, said he was “absolutely astonished” at the decision.
“It is clear the Zahau family desperately wanted to place blame after such an inexplicable tragedy,” he said in a statement obtained by PEOPLE. “But falsely accusing an innocent man of murder, without a shred of credible evidence, did nothing to advance the pursuit of justice, nor to honor the memory of Max and Rebecca. Instead, the fabricated allegations against Adam, and the emotional jury response they provoked, only add another appalling human tragedy to this already horrible situation.”
“We are confident that this preposterous verdict will be reversed on appeal,” Webb said.
At trial, Zahau’s family argued that she was allegedly strangled, sexually assaulted and killed before her body was hung off the deck.
“I think it was just a perversion,” the family’s attorney, C. Keith Greer, tells PEOPLE. “We argued in court that she was in the shower and [Shacknai] was peeping on her and got caught. She was going to call somebody, and he was in deep trouble at that point because the world was going to know he was inappropriately viewing his brother’s girlfriend … the alleged panic set in and he knocked her on the head and from that point, a vicious cycle that conspired to murder.”
In Greer’s view, “It is a simple simple case. It winds up being something very simple.”
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department found otherwise, concluding Zahau killed herself because she felt responsible for the death of her boyfriend’s son.
As proof, investigators previously showed reporters a video reenactment of how they believed she was able to bind her hands and feet and then hang herself. Investigators said they also found her fingerprints on a knife that was used to cut the rope and her toe impressions on the balcony floor.
A message that Zahau had allegedly written in black paint — “She saved him can he save her” — was found on the door of a guest bedroom at the home. But Greer says the family believes that Adam wrote it, not Zahau.
After Wednesday’s verdict, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said in a statement that his department “stands by the findings of the Medical Examiner’s Office and our investigators.”
But, Gore said, “We are always open to reviewing any evidence that could impact our conclusions. Additionally, we are also willing to meet with the Zahau [f]amily to look at any new evidence that came out of the civil trial.”
His certainty in the suicide shocked Zahau’s relatives, according to Greer: “That punched the family right in the stomach.”
“It never has been about money and it still is not,” Greer says. “Adam has very modest means and there is no way he can pay even a fraction of that, so the family will still not see significant money from the lawsuit.”
“This has always been about getting the sheriff to reopen this,” Greer has said.
Webb said, however, there was no new “credible” information “to suggest that Adam was involved in any way.”
“I challenge the Zahau family and their lawyer to accept the [s]heriff’s invitation to share one speck of evidence having anything whatsoever to do with my client,” he said.