The long running, on again, off again murder trial of Lance Ornellas-Castro finally wrapped up with closing arguments that certainly didn’t disappoint.
For Yolo County Deputy DA Melinda Aiello, this was a simple case of robbery gone bad, where the defendant and his accomplice Jorge Garcia set up a marijuana deal to rob victim Andrew Phaouthoum, and ended up shooting him in the head once, killing him and taking his marijuana. Ms. Aiello argued that this was first-degree murder under the felony murder law (where there was an intent to commit a felony, robbery, which resulted in a homicide), negating any effort by the defense to argue self-defense – imperfect or otherwise.
Deputy Public Defender Dan Hutchinson had a tougher task in his soaring, more than two-hour closing. He could only argue for self-defense if he dispatched with the robbery charges. He launched in on an attack on accomplice Jorge Garcia who had turned evidence against Mr. Ornellas-Castro, only to recant and then turn evidence again – against Rod Beede, his attorney, and against seven prosecution witnesses that he meticulously demonstrated lied, including an investigator from the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office, Detective Thomas Hayes.
Mr. Ornellas-Castro faces charges of murder with special circumstances, attempted robbery, and conspiracy to commit robbery with an enhancement of personal use of a firearm. If convicted, he would face life without parole (LWOP) in this case.
Ms. Aiello began her closing arguments reading a series of texts between Lance Ornellas-Castro and Jorge Garcia that indicated that they were “hittin’ licks” – which she interpreted as street slang for a robbery. They indicated that they had no money, they were broke and they wanted to hit someone at an ATM.
For her, this represented evidence that the defendant was intending to rob Andrew Phaouthoum on that fateful day on December 11, 2015.
She pointed out that there was the marijuana taken by Mr. Garcia coupled with the application of force when the victim was shot in the head. “This was a robbery,” she said. The victim’s body was dumped in a slough, they tossed the murder weapon and they kept the marijuana.
Ms. Aiello pointed out that, while she was not required to show motive, the motive was clear. They needed money since they were not able to make bills.
When taken into custody and questioned by Detective Hayes, Ornellas-Castro, Aiello said, lied for forty minutes. He finally admitted to shooting the victim because the victim twitched his arm – although on video, it was clear that he could not come up with an articulate explanation of why he did so.
He said that he “just thought he was going to, should.” But she pointed out that, given the scene, with the victim in the front seat and Ornellas-Castro in the back of the car – the victim’s head, she said, barely turned when he was shot in the temple once, immediately killing him.
She argued that, due to the 40-minute delay and slew of lies, “do not give any weight to the denial of robbery.”
Moreover, she tried to paint Mr. Garcia in a more sympathetic light, noting that “he was in a tough spot.” He didn’t pull the trigger but faced life without parole for his role. He was a snitch, which she said has consequences. She said, “Don’t underestimate his position.”
For his role, he was given 14 years in prison.
After going through the law, Ms. Aiello would conclude, “This was an execution.”
For the defense, Dan Hutchinson called this a “terribly sad case,” where a 21-year-old lost his life. He said that the victim “did nothing to deserve to die that day.”
He called this a marijuana deal gone bad, with a dispute over a misunderstanding of the amount.
Mr. Hutchinson had a tough task in this closing – first he had to disprove the robbery charge, under which any death of Mr. Phaouthoum would be first-degree murder according to the felony murder rule, and then he had to argue that this was self-defense.
He called the theory of a robbery put forward by the prosecution “absurd,” which fell apart completely as Mr. Garcia crumbled on the stand.
Instead, he called this entire case the pursuit of the white whale – build on lies by the prosecution’s witnesses.
He argued that if Mr. Ornellas-Castro thought that the victim was going for a gun when his arm twitched, and if that was an unreasonable fear for his safety, under an imperfect self-defense that would make this voluntary manslaughter rather than murder.
But, in order to get to that defense, the robbery charge had to go away. He argued that this was a conspiracy to sell marijuana, not a conspiracy to rob the victim.
He argued that this was an all-or-nothing case – if this was robbery, then Mr. Ornellas-Castro is guilty on all charges. If he is not guilty of the robbery, then it is either self-defense or an imperfect self-defense.
To make this case to the jury, Mr. Hutchinson was long and meticulous in attacking the prosecution’s theory.
First he went after the the texts. He went through the texts line by line, arguing that none of them, when taken in context, refer to robbery. Many of them refer to drug deals, some refer to burglary, some refer to simple theft.
Not only that, but none of them directly describe this case. The only text discussion that was remotely robbery was weeks before the incident, and it discussed hitting someone at an ATM, Mr. Ornellas-Castro dismissed the idea out of hand, and they never did it.
The second part of the case that Mr. Hutchinson attacked was the testimony of the accomplice.
Jorge Garcia’s testimony, he argued, could be broken down to three parts. In the first part, they planned and committed a robbery. In the second, he recanted, saying that there was never a robbery. Then, the defense argued, after a break where Garcia’s deal was on the verge of falling apart and he could face LWOP, he brought back the theory of a planned robbery.
Mr. Hutchinson noted that there was never an admission or statement of a robbery in any of Mr. Garcia’s statements leading up to trial.
He pointed out that he asked him, in cross-examination, why the jury should believe him now, to which he shrugged his shoulders and said “up to you.”
Mr. Hutchinson then focused the blame here on an unspecified private attorney, and appointed conflict attorney Rob Beede. He said, “What Rod Beede did isn’t a crime, but it should be.”
He argued that Mr. Garcia had already spent $19,000 on an ineffective private attorney. “Jorge Garcia had nothing, he tried to get a private attorney,” Mr. Hutchinson argued. He was desperate, with his life on the line. After the severance in the two cases, he argued that Mr. Beede was on his own. There was an offer. Lance is his friend, but “family comes first” and “he does what he has to do.”
Mr. Hutchinson then argued that, even if you believe Mr. Garcia’s changed testimony, you still need evidence.
In addition to spending a long time debunking the meaning of the texts – Mr. Hutchinson went through the testimony, witness by witness. He asked the jury “how many of the prosecution’s witnesses were shown to have deliberately lied?” He then went down the list and came up with “the Magnificent Seven.”
The key was Detective Thomas Hayes, who he said perjured his testimony in an effort to save the prosecution’s case. The key phrase was “hit a lick,” and Mr. Hutchinson said there was no evidence that it meant a robbery other than from questions he asked one of the other witnesses.
At most, it meant taking things out of people’s homes – which would be burglary not a robbery, or breaking into cars which would be petty theft.
He said that Det. Hayes kept to himself lies that would suck in innocent people. It was his representation, he said, that led Deputy DA Rob Gorman to believe there was evidence of a robbery and that was enough to get him to file murder charges.
“That’s how much damage a lie can do,” Mr. Hutchinson told the jury.
One of the witnesses read verbatim the lie on the stand when her memory was refreshed. She testified that they tried to set up the victim with a marijuana deal in order to rob him. But that testimony, Mr. Hutchinson argued, was not based on her memory, it was based on the police statement that was fabricated.
When asked about it on the stand, Thomas Hayes, Mr. Hutchinson argued, came up with a new lie – which is now perjury since it was on the stand. He said that he used the term “robbery” because that is what the witness used. But the video instead showed that he suggested the term to her and that, while he kept digging in, she didn’t use it.
Mr. Hutchinson argued, “He didn’t look at the video, because he knew it was a lie when he said it.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting
By Ruby Zapien
A Yolo County jury, after hearing final arguments in a murder case – where a simple robbery may have been a drug deal gone bad which then turned into a raw murder – was sent into deliberation late Tuesday, after being told by the defense that witnesses, and even the defendant, had all “lied.”
“How dumb would Jorge and Lance have to be to do this?” Deputy Public Defender Dan Hutchinson asked in closing defense arguments, referring to defendant Lance Ornellas-Castro, who is accused of murdering Andrew Phaouthoum.
Mr. Hutchinson said those who commit robberies can be really “dumb.”
However, he went on to differentiate between robberies, by describing a scene of a random person walking down the street after work who gets robbed, claiming that the robber, in this case, is dumb. “Andrew Phaouthoum wasn’t some random guy walking home from work.”
Mr. Hutchinson showed the court a summary of text messages and call exchanges between Mr. Phaouthoum and Mr. Garcia before the day of the incident, as well as multiple text messages the day of the incident.
Mr. Hutchinson explained these text messages could have been the actual marijuana deal being planned out, but, “what’s interesting – where are those text messages? They’re not there.” He was referring to the text exchanges that would have been in Mr. Phaouthoum’s flip phone, had they not been deleted before it being in Officer Stephanie Gill’s (a CSI) possession.
Mr. Hutchinson implied that “MP,” Mr. Phaouthoum’s brother, could have deleted these messages. Moreover, he suggested that this phone, one of Mr. Phaouthoum’s multiple phones, was given to MP before the deal because he knew he was going into a drug deal and perhaps did not want any evidence of it if it were to go wrong – or if he encountered an officer instead of Mr. Garcia.
“You don’t rob someone that you have that relationship with for no reason,” said Mr. Hutchinson, adding that witnesses and defendants were in fear because of of Mr. Phaouthoum’s gang association. He reminded the jury of the testimony from “Uncle WB” and “RB” (acquaintances of Garcia’s) and how fearful they were about testifying. Moreover, he recapped the fear of Mr. Garcia and Mr. Ornellas-Castro and how it would have been dumb of Jorge to put RB’s life in danger when he obviously deeply cared about her.
Mr. Hutchinson then discussed the circumstantial evidence provided by the prosecution, including the fact that Mr. Ornellas-Castro purchased a gun, showed up to the marijuana deal with a weapon and sat in the back seat of the van. Mr. Hutchinson argued that all of these behaviors are consistent with an individual with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and being uneasy about Andrew Phaouthoum. The prosecution claimed that “it was two on one.” Mr. Hutchinson responded that neither Mr. Garcia or Mr. Ornellas-Castro are intimidating enough to be considered “back up.” Mr. Hutchinson reminded the court of Mr. Garcia calling himself a “momma’s boy.”
Mr. Hutchinson claimed that the prosecution believes the “PTSD is a big fake.” Nonetheless, he reminded the jury of Dr. Podway’s statement, “It’s unquestionable that [Lance Ornellas-Castro] has PTSD.” He continued to talk about the video interview with Detective Brian Young, asserting that his client did not simply “jump on the [PTSD] bandwagon.”
In a comical manner, Mr. Hutchinson described what he believes to be the prosecution’s theory. “Wow! How lucky am I?… Fortunately, my family watched me change… had nothing to do with my PTSD… when no one is looking, I’ll look at the ceiling and say sorry Whitehead.”
Mr. Hutchinson questioned why the prosecution never hired their own expert if they honestly believed Mr. Ornellas-Castro’s PTSD was fake. “The fact that they didn’t speaks volumes,” Mr. Hutchison charged.
“Lies, lies lies,” said Mr. Hutchinson, referring to the prosecution’s interpretation of the beginning of Mr. Ornellas-Castro’s interview with Detective Young. He claimed it was evident Mr. Ornellas-Castro was lying, but he added that seven of the prosecutors’ witnesses also lied. He told the jury if they ever wanted to write a book on this particular case it would be unfortunate for them because the best title has already been taken, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell them.
Mr. Hutchinson argued that the prosecution had nothing other than the robbery to stand on. Without the robbery notion, they had no murder. “The prosecution says, ‘maybe he could have waited to see the gun.’ Maybe, but at that point he’s dead.” Mr. Hutchinson noted that Mr. Ornellas-Castro honestly believed he was in imminent danger and therefore force was necessary. He told the jury that if they reasonably believed this, they were to find Ornellas-Castro not guilty.
In asking the jury to find Mr. Ornellas-Castro not guilty on all three charges, Mr. Hutchinson said Ornellas-Castro did, in fact, commit multiple crimes the night of the incident. However, those are not the crimes he is being charged with. He reminded the jury members that they are to decide on murder, manslaughter, attempted robbery, and conspiracy to commit a robbery. Mr. Hutchinson stated, “ You can only decide on charges put before you, not others that would have been.
“No matter what decision you make, someone is going to be mad at you,” said Mr. Hutchinson to the jury, as he empathized with them about how difficult their duty is. While reminding them that he could have easily selected other jurors, he assured the jury, “I knew you guys could do the job.”
Mr. Hutchinson spoke of his previous closing arguments and how much of a movie fan he was. He told the court that he’s known for using quotes from award-winning films in his closing arguments. However, this closing argument would be different. He decided to quote from a conversation between a Marine and a sailor, Mr. Ornellas-Castro and Detective Young.
“All you did was tell me the truth,” said Mr. Hutchinson, quoting Detective Young. “All you did was tell me what happened, and it makes sense. It fits with everything I’m seeing.”
Finally, Mr. Hutchinson reminded the jury that he is asking them to find Mr. Ornellas-Castro not guilty of first and second-degree murder, manslaughter, attempted robbery, and conspiracy to commit a robbery.
People’s Final Arguments:
The court took a brief recess and returned to the final closing arguments from the People. On behalf of the People, Chief Assistant Deputy District Attorney Melinda Aiello told the jury, “I get the final word because the People have the burden.” She told the jury that the defense’s theory of the People being focused on the robbery – is “simply wrong.”
She reminded the jury of the “facts,” which include: Mr. Ornellas-Castro being the only confirmed gang member; there were multiple texts about stealing drugs and marijuana; and Mr. Ornellas-Castro showed up with a gun and sat in the back seat. Moreover, he stayed silent for five weeks while Mr. Garcia was in custody. Referring to these five weeks, Ms. Aiello shouted, “If he felt legally justified to save his life, why is Jorge in jail?!”
Ms. Aiello then talked about the relevance of the second gun shot. “No evidence, no crime,” stated Ms. Aiello. “Why would he take a second shot? Maybe he shot him in the course of a robbery and wanted to make sure he was dead? Even the best-trained shooters miss.”
She respectfully disagreed with Mr. Hutchinson’s theory and stated that it is “dumb” to rob someone who knows you. However, she claimed that if “dumb” criminals did not exist, she and opposing counsel would not be as busy as they are.
Regarding Mr. Hutchinson’s argument of Mr. Ornellas-Castro’s PTSD, Ms. Aiello said, “He might have it. I don’t know, but I’m not going to waste government dollars to find out.”
Ms. Aiello then attempted to instruct the jury on circumstantial evidence, but Mr. Hutchinson quickly objected that Ms. Aiello was misstating the law. Ms. Aeillo tried again, saying “I probably, could have worded that better.” However, Mr. Hutchinson objected again, stating Ms. Aiello was misstating the law. At this point, Ms. Aiello picked up a document from the prosecutor’s table and began to read CALCRIM No. 224. Circumstantial Evidence, verbatim.
Finally, she told the jury to separate storytelling from the evidence, and the evidence shows that the defendant killed Andrew Phaouthoum in the course of a robbery.
After proper instructions, the jury was sent to begin deliberations and will resume on Wednesday, March 15, 2017, in Department 8.