SANTA ROSA — The family of murder suspect David Levi Chavez thought it had good news when the judge read the jury’s verdict Friday afternoon — not guilty of first-degree murder.
They erupted in loud cheers — prematurely as it turned out.
District Judge Abigail Aragon then announced that the jury had found Chavez, 22, guilty of second-degree murder in the 2008 death of 6-year-old Jasmine Garcia. She had been sleeping in a house on Las Vegas‘ Union Street when she was struck by gunfire.
The seven-woman, five-man jury arrived at its decision after two hours of deliberations. It followed a week-long trial.
Six police officers stood guard in the courtroom as the jury entered the courtroom after it reached its verdict. The judge ordered that no one sit in the first two rows behind the prosecution and defense. And she warned that people could be arrested on contempt-of-court charges for outbursts.
The victim’s family, which was on one side of the courtroom, was allowed to leave first. Meanwhile, many of Chavez’s family members sobbed. One Chavez members shouted as he left the courtroom, “Levi, I love you.” Others loudly uttered obscenities about the verdict.
Outside the courthouse, Ruby Sanchez, Jasmine’s mother, said the verdict was closure for her family.
“I wished he (Chavez) had gotten first-degree. But I’m happy with second-degree. It’s better that he is behind bars,” she said.
Chavez’s mother, Karen Vickery, said her family got excited when the judge announced the not-guilty verdict for first-degree murder because they thought that was it. She insisted on his innocence.
“That’s my son. I wanted him to come home,” she said. “I know my son; he’s not a violent person.”
But Vickery said she understood the feelings of Garcia’s family because of its loss.
“I feel for the family. We will be without our son. There are no winners on this one,” she said.
Vickery praised the work of her son's lawyer, Bob Gorence.
District Attorney Richard Flores said Chavez could be sentenced for up to 15 years for second-degree murder. He called it a tough case, noting that the state had only one eyewitness, no weapon found and no physical evidence.
“Getting a second-degree murder charge out of that is pretty damn good,” he said.
The state’s key witness was Chris Romero, who testified that he knew about Chavez’s killing of Garcia for several months without telling authorities. He didn't say anything until Las Vegas police detectives got a tip about his knowledge. At first, he lied about what he knew, but after about a half hour, he pointed the finger at Chavez.
In an interview, Flores wouldn’t say how the state would handle Romero’s withholding of his knowledge for months.
“Without Chris Romero, we couldn’t have proceeded in this case,” he said.
Gorence, the defense attorney, declined to comment after the verdict was announced.
In closing arguments, Flores said Chavez’s actions showed he was guilty of killing Garcia. He repeatedly pointed to the witness testimony of Romero, Chavez’s friend. In several instances, Chavez said he wanted to get revenge against Jeffrey Sanchez, Garcia’s uncle, because of an ongoing feud, according to Romero’s testimony.
A few days before the killing, Romero testified, Chavez bought a 12-gauge shotgun from another friend, Joshua Pacheco, and video from a Wal-Mart security camera showed Chavez and Pacheco going into Wal-Mart to buy shotgun shells the day before the slaying.
During parties that night, Romero testified that Chavez was obsessed with Sanchez, saying he wanted to light Sanchez’s trash can on fire, according to Romero’s testimony. Chavez and Romero smoked marijuana and drank that night, Romero said. Near the end of the night, Chavez said he wanted to kill Sanchez, Romero said.
Romero testified that he took Chavez to his house on New Mexico Avenue, where Chavez picked up the shotgun. Then Romero said he took his friend a few blocks to Union Street, where Sanchez lived, at Chavez’s request. Romero testified that he dropped off Chavez and as he was driving away, he heard a gunshot.
“There is no doubt about the ride. Chris gave him a ride to the house,” said Flores, who showed the jury a picture of Garcia in her kindergarten graduation cap and gown.
In his closing arguments, Gorence, the defense attorney, said the jury shouldn‘t be swayed by emotion.
“It’s easy to want to be vengeful. It’s easy to want to let your emotions go because we have a 6-year-old girl. But American trials don’t work that way,” he said.
He said the state couldn’t show that Chavez was the one who fired the shot that killed Garcia. Also, he said there was no proof that the shotgun was in Chavez’s possession the night of the killing.
Gorence questioned the credibility of the state’s main witness, Romero, saying that it was proven that he had lied repeatedly during the investigation. He said no other witnesses could back up Romero’s story about Chavez firing the shot.
He also said it was doubtful that someone who dropped off another to shoot someone didn’t stay around to see what happened.
In any event, he said, the state couldn’t prove that Chavez had intent to kill because he had been drinking and smoking marijuana that night.
However, Flores disagreed with that argument, saying the testimony showed that Chavez was sober enough to understand his actions.
“Levi knew what he was doing and what he was saying. Don’t let him (Gorence) fool you into thinking that Levi was so intoxicated that he couldn’t form intent,” the district attorney said. “What else do you think will happen when you have a shotgun and shoot into a trailer where people live. Use your common sense.”
He also pointed to the recording of a phone conversation between Chavez and his girlfriend shortly before a preliminary hearing. He asked her to tell potential witnesses that the shotgun didn’t work. This, Flores contended, was an obvious attempt by Chavez to have people believe that he couldn’t have used the shotgun to kill Garcia.
A forensics expert earlier in the week showed that Garcia had been killed as the result of a shotgun blast.
The trial was moved from Las Vegas to Santa Rosa because Gorence, the defense attorney, had argued pretrial publicity had prevented Chavez from getting a fair trial in Las Vegas.
A sentencing date has yet to be set.