Monday Morning Thoughts: Why Did DA Punt on High Profile Murder Case?

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DA Jeff Reisig at a February 2017 press conference

When the KetMoRee stabbing first occurred in September 2015, it was a stunning moment for the city of Davis.  This was a killing right in the heart of the core of Davis, and it rocked our foundation to the core and unsettled the populace.  The immediate attention focused on what was perceived to be an out-of-control night scene in the downtown, and this killing threatened to shut down that scene.

As calmer heads prevailed, attention has turned to the specifics of what happened that night.  And, quite frankly, that is shrouded in mystery.  There were really two questions that pervaded.  The first is to what extent this killing was an act of gang members preying on an innocent victim, and to what extent this was simply a normal dispute that a person attempted to handle by escalating it to deadly force.  And the second is to what extent this was a group attack where the other defendants were active participants, and to what extent this was the act of a single individual that went out of control.

When I asked this question two years ago, the response I got from those who knew was, if you saw the video, you would see that the group acted in concert to box in the victim and allow the main culprit to stab Peter Gonzalez to death.

But we never really got to find out what the evidence was that all six men were involved, including the killer himself and five others facing murder charges for aiding and abetting.  The DA’s
office, as it is wont to do in high profile cases, held its cards close to its vest and went the grand jury route, which is secret.  In fact, it was a surprise grand jury indictment on the eve of the preliminary hearing, catching everyone off guard and causing huge delays for the proceedings.

With a plea agreement, we now do not have evidence on the record as to what happened and can only piece it together from various statements.  However, the terms of the agreement itself are rather telling.

In the aftermath of the plea agreement, there were a lot of excuses offered by the DA’s office about this plea agreement.  For me, one of the most telling factors about how they felt about it is that they have not released a press release touting the conviction of Victor Vergara, now 24, for voluntary manslaughter for which he will receive roughly 22 years plus five for his jail assault on another inmate, for a total of 27 years.

A close analysis shows why they would not be that pleased with this outcome.

First, they dropped the charges COMPLETELY against all the co-defendants.  I am actually a little bit surprised they didn’t try to get them on a PC section 186.22(a) – the stand-alone gang charge – which makes it a crime to actively participate in a gang with knowledge that its members engage in a pattern of criminal activity and/or willfully promote, further, or assist felonious conduct by the gang members.

With a conviction, they could have faced up to three years in prison, but, then again, given that they have been in custody nearly two years, it probably would have been time served.

However, given that the DA did not even hold out for a slap-on-the-wrist conviction, it is evidence that the DA had no reason to believe that they committed any crime at all.

That is certainly what the defense believed in this case.

Rod Beede, a private attorney contracted by the county, represented Joseph Sandeno in this matter and called it “a bar fight that went badly. One person decided to make it lethal, and that person has decided to take responsibility.”

The prosecutor in this, Garrett Hamilton, was full of excuses.  He was quick to blame changes in the gang laws for the need to cop to a plea deal.  But the excuse does not pass the smell test, as I’ll explain shortly.

Here’s what he told the Enterprise, in saying that changes in gang laws made it more difficult to prosecute gang-related cases. “California courts have published several cases in the last few years that have added challenges to the prosecution of gang cases,” he told the paper.

The problem with that excuse is that it might explain why they dropped murder charges against the five co-defendants accused of aiding and abetting.  It does not explain why they wouldn’t offer a 186.22(a) as the bait for a plea, and it does not explain why they wouldn’t drop the charges against the five and proceed against Mr. Vergara with murder charges.

Unless they hinged the entire case for murder, the motivation, upon speculative gangs laws – I fail to see the connection here.

Tracie Olson, whose office represented Zackary Sandeno, noted that their client and four others “have lost two years of their lives facing murder charges based not on their own actions, but on the prosecution’s theory that if one gang affiliate commits a crime then everyone present with the culprit must also be responsible.

“Defense attorneys have long maintained that not every crime committed by an individual gang member is committed for the benefit of the gang,” Ms. Olson added. “Simply being present when another commits a crime is insufficient to convict.”

Basically this amounts to the fact that the only real evidence they had against the five co-defendants was that they were gang members.  I have long believed that you have to have more evidence than that to put someone away for life.  You should have to show they had knowledge of the crime and actively aided and abetted, but the dropping of the charges suggests otherwise.

How many other people have we seen convicted based on their gang affiliation rather than their actual conduct?

The fact that they reduced the charges from murder (a life sentence) down to voluntary manslaughter is suggestive that even their prime case wasn’t as strong as they let on.  Perhaps the defense had a credible claim of self-defense.  After all, the DA has often rolled the dice on stronger charges – sometimes the jury convicts on them, sometimes they reduce, and a few times they have outright acquitted.

At the end of the day, the DA can spin this however they want, they can talk about the change in gang laws, but the reality is they had a weak case and overcharged this, and can no longer be bailed out by archaic gang laws to get convictions based on such weak evidence.

The DA clearly overreached on this and got burned.

—David M. Greenwald reporting



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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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8 thoughts on “Monday Morning Thoughts: Why Did DA Punt on High Profile Murder Case?”

  1. Keith O

    When I asked this question two years ago, the response I got from those who knew is if you saw the video, you would see that the group acted in concert to box in the victim and allow the main culprit to stab Peter Gonzalez to death.

    Who were “those who knew” who told you this?  DPD?  DA?  Defense attorneys?

      1. Keith O

        Okay, the reason I asked is can your source be trusted?  Did you believe their interpretatation of the video that the others did indeed box in the victim?

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          The source should have seen the video. The claim was to justify why six people were arrested for a single stabbing. But I don’t know if the information was correct. The reason I actually brought it up is I don’t know what to believe, we have not had public access to this case because it went the Grand Jury indictment and now has copped to a plea. The fact that the trial was dismissed would seem to cast doubt on that early claim.

        2. Keith O

          Okay, your source should have seen the video as you state.  Is your source someone you trust who had no reason to spin what they actually saw on the video?

  2. Keith O

    The point is that if David’s source were to be trusted and is correct it kind of blows a hole in David’s article where he states that “Basically this amounts to the fact that the only real evidence they had against the five co-defendants was that they were gang members.”  If they indeed “acted in concert to box in the victim and allow the main culprit to stab Peter Gonzalez to death” than that sounds like more evicence than just the fact that they were gang members.

    This post was in response to Howard P who seems to have deleted his comment.

    1. David Greenwald

      I was told it two years ago – I wasn’t sure if it was accurate or spin and was waiting to see what the evidence would show.  Now that they have dismissed charges, I believe it more likely to have been spin.

  3. Tia Will

    “it is evidence that the DA had no reason to believe that they committed any crime at all.”

    I have long believed that you have to have more evidence than that to put someone away for life. “

    Or to deprive them of two years of their life in my view of the situation.

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