UPDATE: THE JUDGE HAS JUST SENTENCED JUAN VASQUEZ TO 56 YEARS IN PRISON.
STAY TUNED TO GAZETTE.COM FOR DETAILS AND THE STORY.
Good morning court watchers,
This is John Ensslin, legal affairs reporter for the Gazette, coming to you live this morning from a courtroom where Juan Manuel Vasquez is about to be sentenced for killing two teenagers during a brawl in Eastridge Park.
On Jan.14, a jury found Vasquez, 21, guilty of second-degree murder in the Jan. 8, 2009 shooting deaths of Uriel Rascon, 18, and Luis Burciaga, 17.
Prosecutors had sought a first-degree murder verdict, arguing that Vasquez brought a semiautomatic rifle to what everyone else thought was a fist-fight.
Vasquez’ defense attorney Bill Griffin countered that his client acted in self-defense after seeing his girlfriend get punched in the head during the melee.
The jurors concluded that Vasquez, “acted upon provoked passion” when he killed the two men with an SKS rifle.
Judge Timothy Schutz tells the packed courtroom that he expects everyone to act in a professional manner. He tells them to address their remarks to him, not to others in the courtroom.
The room is so crowded that a group of spectators are standing in a tight group between the seats.
The first witness in the hearing is El Paso County Sheriff’s Investigator Ralph Losasso, who was the lead detective in the case.
Losasso describes how the initial investigation yielded information that the shooter was someone named “Scrappy.” That led investigators to Vasquez.
Losasso tells the judge about an earlier incident in August 2008 in which Vasquez was shot in the leg during a confrontation with a carload of teenagers outside his family’s house.
Vasquez was not charged in that incident.
Next up, friends and relatives of the two victims speak.
The aunt of Luis Burciaga addresses the judge through a Spanish interpreter.
“Whatever happens here is not going to be enough to address the loss,” she says.
“He (Luis) was a beautiful person. He was very affectionate,” she adds.
A woman in the front row begins to cry.
Next, Burciaga’s mom’s talks to the judge. She asks him to impose the maximum sentence of 64 years.
“Today we come to ask for justice for my son’s death,” she said through the interpreter.
“Luis’ death was the hardest blow I have recieved in my life,” she said.
“Luis was my companion,” she continued. ” He was the one who when I woke up in the morning, he would brighten up my morning.”
“He was always singing and dancing and always laughing,” she said.
He would not want to see his mother cry, she added, as she began to do just that.
“I’ve been crying for two years,” she said. “Luis’ death has left me empty and hollow.”
“I will never see Luis get married and have children,” she sobbed. “For him to be accomplished as a person.”
“While some laugh, we cry.”
On January 8, 2009, Juan Vasquez acted, “like he was the most macho man in the world,” she said.
“He had no pity, so why should he ask for pity now?” she asked.
The defense begins to present witnesses on Vasquez’ behalf.
Chris Vasquez is the first to speak from his family.
“I know what he did was wrong,” the defendant’s brother said.
But he described Vasquez as a loving brother who always took time to help Chris with his homework and enabled him to graduate high school on time.
Another relative, a woman named Marta speaks to the judge. (Note to readers: I couldn’t catch her last name. I’ll fill in that detail later.)
“As a family, we feel very sorry for what happened,” she said. “But I do know that Juan is not a violent person.”
“We all believe in one God, a God who speaks about love and mercy,” she added.
She asks for mercy for Juan Vasquez.
“I’m sorry about these young men,” she says of the two victims. “I’m a mother. It hurts me.”
She asks the judge to consider a sentence closer to the minimum of 20 years.
Juan Vasquez’ father speaks to the judge.
“I’m very sorry for what happened,” the father said.
He noted the pain his son has caused the Burciaga and Rascon families.
“We are suffered very much, as they are,” he said.
“He (his son) has to face the consequence.”
“I don’t know what happened in the park that day,” he added. “What happened,happened.”
Juan Vasquez now addresses the judge.
“I’m very sorry for what I did,” he said through sobs.
The judge asks him to speak up so that everyone in the room can hear Vasquez.
“I want to apologize…for what I’ve done,” Vasquez added.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Jim Bently is now making his argument for why Vasquez should receive the maximum sentence.
He reminds the judge that Vasquez was the only person to bring a gun to what was supposed to be a fist fight.
Schutz asks the prosecutor if he believes the defendant’s age should be a factor in the sentence. Vasquez was 19 at the time of the shooting.
Bentley said he doesn’t thing it should because of the way Vasquez presented himself in the park that day, noting that the shooting took place during a gang confrontation.
“He made plans to take a gun there, judge,” Bentley said.
Defense attorney Bill Griffin makes his argument for Vasquez.
Griffin said he was grateful that the jury found his client acted in the heat of passion, which mitigated the potential punishment.
“I don’t envy your position,” Griffin told the judge, noting the wide range of possible sentences between 20 to 64 years.
Griffin said the judge’s sentence will decide whether or not Vasquez has the opportunity for a life or not.
It’s hard to ask for that opportunity, knowing that it’s not available to Rascon and Burciaga, Griffin said.
But he reminds the judge that Vasquez had been the victim of the earlier shooting and that there was evidence that his rifle was not the only weapon in the park that day.
“There was substantial evidence that there was a threat to the people he loved,” Griffin said.