Lance Ornellas-Castro walked out of court on Tuesday a free man, after a Yolo County jury acquitted him on all counts – despite his acknowledgement that he shot and killed 21-year-old Andrew Phaouthoum on December 11, 2015.
The verdict was stunning for the prosecution, as they had sought first degree murder charges and life without parole for the defendant.
For 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.
However, in his closing, Deputy Public Defender Dan Hutchinson countered the prosecution’s narrative, attacking a series of text messages which he argued the prosecutor was taking out of context. He also attacked the integrity of a Yolo County Sheriff’s Deputy, Detective Thomas Hayes.
The big coup would be the star witness for the prosecution – Jorge Garcia, close friend of Mr. Ornellas-Castro who turned state’s evidence against his friend in order to gain a lesser sentence of 14 years. However, his testimony was inconsistent – at one point he flipped on the prosecution and testified that there was no robbery, only to come back with a new story after conferring with the prosecution.
By Tuesday morning, the prosecution’s case was falling apart. The jury, at midday on Monday, sent a note indicating that they had reached a verdict on first and second degree murder, attempted robbery, and conspiracy to commit a robbery.
The note indicated that they could not reach an agreement on the lesser included charge of voluntary manslaughter.
By itself that note marked a major victory for the defense. The only way they could get to consider voluntary manslaughter is if they had acquitted on all the other charges. Under the felony murder rule, any death (even accidental or claimed self-defense) resulting from felony conduct would be considered first degree murder.
The jury had apparently quickly acquitted Mr. Ornellas-Castro on the robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery charges along with murder. The key question – as they articulated in court – focused on the reasonableness of self-defense.
The jury foreman indicated that the jury would benefit from additional arguments on whether Mr. Ornellas-Castro acted reasonably when he shot the victim as they sat in the car and the victim made a arm movement.
At this point, a conviction on voluntary manslaughter with the use of a gun enhancement would still lead to a 21-year-sentence.
Melinda Aiello argued that the jury was in effect acting as Monday Morning Quarterbacks in determining which actions were reasonable. Self-defense or imperfect self-defense came down to whether the defendant had a reasonable fear for his life.
Ms. Aiello focused on several factors to determine whether the self-defense and use of lethal force was reasonable. First was that there has to be an immediate danger – it could actually exist or a reasonable person could believe that it would actually exist.
Here she argued that the victim was not armed and that the arm movement was not an immediate danger. “This was simply an arm movement,” she said in arguing that there was no immediate need for the use of force.
She pointed out that the defendant’s statement in interviews with police was that he had no time to think, he just reacted. She argued that he over-reacted to the situation and that self-defense therefore fails.
Ms. Aiello finally argued that it was not reasonable to use deadly force here. The victim, again, was unarmed. The defendant was with another person, in addition, in the vehicle. She argued that the victim was not going to try something with two guys in the car and that self-defense was not necessary.
Ms. Aiello also argued that if this was indeed self-defense, one would tell the police this in the first place. Instead, Mr. Ornellas-Castro and Jorge Garcia spent 40 minutes denying, with a slew of lies, that they had shot Mr. Phaouthoum.
She said this was simply a case where an unarmed man moved his arm and got shot.
Deputy Public Defender Dan Hutchinson was, by this point, playing with house money, but he went right after the prosecution’s arguments, noting that the prosecution had the burden of proof here to prove that the defendant acted unreasonably.
He also used a football analogy, arguing that the call on the field is the presumption of innocence, and if you don’t know if he acted reasonably, then the call on the field stands and you have to go with not guilty.
While the prosecution made it a point to state that Mr. Phaouthoum was unarmed, the men certainly did not know this at the time. The context of the shooting was important, Mr. Hutchinson argued.
He pointed out that Mr. Phaouthoum was a known drug dealer. He sold a large amount of drugs. He was an Asian gang member. There was a reasonable belief that he would carry a gun.
The key is not what was true, but what they reasonably believed. As Mr. Hutchinson pointed out, this wasn’t two guys who were riding the bus. They had a drug deal which was going sideways over money, and it got heated.
Andrew Phaouthoum was a large man, and he was wearing baggy clothes. Lance already believed, from the back seat, that the money had changed hands. Then there was the arm movement.
Mr. Hutchinson pointed out that they could have waited to see if he had reached for something, but if they had waited and it was a gun, they would be dead.
Mr. Hutchinson also pointed out that Lance Ornellas-Castro had always carried a gun, going back to his days in the military. His PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) created a heightened alert to a threat.
But the defense also pointed out that this was the first time they ever established that he had used his weapon.
The defense’s arguments here clearly carried the day. The jury reportedly was split 8-4 for acquittal prior to the re-arguments. Just before noon, the jury announced that they had reached a verdict and just after lunch it was announced that Lance Ornellas-Castro had been acquitted on all counts.
—David M. Greenwald reporting