By Arianna Medina
As the defendant was brought into Department 14 today, a man wearing an orange shirt abruptly stood up. Still, quiet, and glaring at the defendant, this man turned out to be the uncle of the victim who was shot and killed the night of March 15, 2019, and a witness in today’s preliminary hearing.
In the continuing case of The People v. Stefon Ceaser, the court heard five witness testimonies to determine if Mr. Ceaser will be held to answer for Count 1 of felony murder, Count 2 of felony possesion of a firearm by previous convict, and Count 3 of misdemeanor theft or unauthorized use of a vehicle.
The defense called its first witness, the uncle of the victim. He testified that he knows the defendant through family and he’s known Mr. Ceaser since him and his nephew were “growing up.” During the examination, the defense him why he stood up when the defendant walked in. He claims he was shocked to come face-to-face with the guy who killed his nephew and “wanted to get a good look at him.”
He testified that he was there the night of March 15 and witnessed his nephew getting shot. According to previous testimony, this witness allegedly testified at a grand jury that he was too intoxicated to see who shot the victim. He testified that he did not recall seeing his nephew get shot but that now he does recall the events. The defense asked him why now, months later, is he suddenly remembering? The witness claims he blocked it out because it was a traumatic experience.
He recalls that on the night of March 15, after getting off work, he got together with the victim to get dinner and have some drinks. The witness testified that they were at a bar at some point but he doesn’t quite remember. The witness testified that his recollection of that night begins when they arrived at the house of his ex-girlfriend. Apparently, the defendant was at this residence and the witness recalls the defendant and his nephew fighting upon their arrival to the house. The witness claims to have been in a relationship with the owner of the house and that they recently broke up. The defense continued asking if there was a reason they went back to his ex-girlfriend’s house even though they had already broken up. The witness claims he cannot recall why they went to her house.
The witness testified that when they first got to the house, his nephew jumped out of the car and immediately got into an altercation with the defendant. He testified they were fighting in the kitchen and living room and claims to remember his nephew on top of the defendant. When asked why his nephew and the defendant got into an altercation in the first place, he claims it was because the defendant allegedly sent a Facebook message to the victim’s underage sister. The witness claims that because the defendant tried to talk to his underage niece, he didn’t try to break up the fight initially. However, he testified that at some point during the brawl the defendant pulled out a knife, that is when the witness tried to intervene but sustained a slash across his left cheek and jaw area. The defendant allegedly fled the house and took off in the victim’s truck.
The witness further testified that after the defendant took their truck, they decided to walk back to his house, as he only lived a block away. He claims they were walking when they heard the victim’s truck come back up the street. He testified that Mr. Ceaser jumped out, had a gun in his hand already pointed, and shot his nephew.
At this point during the questioning, the defense presented the witness’s old Facebook posts and points out that he uses a “double lightning emoji” in quite a few of them. He asks the witness if he is aware these emojis are similar to Nazi symbolism. The witness replies no, that he “just likes lighting bolts.”
When asked about a Facebook post picturing a belt, the witness testified to how he made that belt when he was locked up some 15 plus years ago for drug sales offense. The defense asked the witness if he had any connections to a white supremacist gang while in prison, to this he replied no. The defense also asked about his connection to a motorcycle club, the witness claim he enjoys riding and does it for fun.
When the prosecution was allowed to cross-examine the witness, he went straight to the night in question and asked the witness to revisit certain events. He re-testified about the defendant pulling out a knife and “swinging it around,” the defendant pulling out of the driveway in the victim’s truck, and the moment the truck pulled up behind them as they were walking back home. The witness saw Mr. Ceaser get out, go behind the truck, and by the time he came back around in view, already had the gun pointed at his nephew. The witness claims the defendant was standing less than 20 feet from them when he fired.
The defense then called their second witness. This man claimed to know the defendant through mutual family members and claims they met back in 2005. This witness allegedly provided the gun to Mr. Ceaser and was there the night of the incident. He testified having seen the defendant on the way to get alcohol, around midnight or so. He claims to have been coming from his girlfriend’s house and on the way, ran into Mr. Ceaser at the scene. He testified that there was another truck with passengers at the scene, and that he heard one gunshot. He claims he went back to his girlfriend’s house after the incident and was so “shaken up,” by the events, that he did not go back to purchase alcohol. When asked directly if he had given the gun to the defendant, he claims he did not give a gun to Mr. Ceaser and that he has not made any contact with the defendant since.
The defense then asked the witness about a warrant out for his phone. The witness claims he did not give his phone to the police because he accidentally smashed it and got a new one. However, the witness testifies that he would not have been scared to give the police his phone because he “has nothing to hide.” Mr. Ceaser allegedly called the witness multiple times around 11:00 PM but when he answered, he only heard rustling and believed it to be a butt dial. The witness claims he is confident his fingertips or DNA evidence would not be on the weapon.
The defense’s third witness was Trista Kennedy, an officer of the Woodland Police Department and a member of the CSI team. She testified to having taken pictures of the autopsy of the victim and measurements of the crime scene. The defense then presented a picture of the alleged pocket knife on the floor of the scene, officer Kennedy testified to having taken the photo. The fourth witness, an officer Theresa Perez, is also a member of Woodland Police Department’s CSI team. She testified to having taken pictures of the crime scene as well and allegedly found alcohol in the victim’s car. She testified there was an open container in the center console of the front seat.
The defense’s fifth witness was an officer Miguel Vega from the Woodland Police Department. He was there the morning of March 16, after the incident took place, and claims to have spoken with the victim’s uncle. He testified that when he spoke to the victim’s uncle, he claimed he didn’t see who shot his nephew. The officer testified to having seen the knife wound on his face, and that the victim’s uncle would not let officer Vega take a picture of his injury.
Officer Vega described the victim’s uncle’s demeanor as “quiet” and “not saying much.” The defense showed Officer Vega his report from that morning and, referencing it, testified to having reported the victim’s uncle having slurred speech and emitting a “strong odor” of alcohol. The officer further testified there were two blood spots on the victim’s uncle’s sweater, however officer Vega claims he did not ask about them nor did the victim’s uncle offer an explanation. He testified the victim’s uncle was unresponsive an uncooperative.
When the state was allowed to cross-examine this witness, the prosecutor asked officer Vega if he has had training in dealing with witnesses who are in shock or who have gone through a traumatic experience. Officer Vega testified to have only been trained in domestic violence situations but claims he was under the impression the victim’s uncle was in shock. When asked why his interaction with the victim’s uncle was cut so short, he testified it was because he refused to speak.
In closing arguments, the defense argued that the state’s argument for premeditated murder rests solely on the speculation that one witness gave a gun to Mr. Ceaser. They claim the witness’s testimony today was credible and there is no strong suspicion that the witness gave the gun to Mr. Ceaser. The defense asked not to issue a holding for the count of murder and argues the case is “pregnant with provocation” and that it is simply just “ongoing beef” one family has against Mr. Ceaser. He argues the victim and the victim’s uncle went to the ex-girlfriend’s house to willingly make this confrontation and claims this is a matter for the jury to decide.
On rebuttal, the state argued their basis for premeditation is not solely about the source of the gun. They argue that even though there was an altercation, and Mr. Ceaser himself is a victim in that sense, he fled the house and reached a point of safety. Yet, he took the victim’s car, drove away, then came back and shot the gun. The prosecutor also claimed the basis for their premeditation argument comes from apparent surveillance evidence that shows the defendant getting out of the car and approaching the other vehicle mentioned at the scene before shooting.
When Judge Rosenberg gave his ruling, he agreed with the defense there was evidence of provocation and some evidence of self defense. On the issue of premeditation, he reiterates that the defendant did leave the scene and agreed with the State that he had time to obtain a weapon and reflect on the events. The court will hold Mr. Ceaser to answer for all three counts before a jury, the arraignment will be on Nov. 15, 2019, at 9:00 AM in Department 11.