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Death After a 2 1/2-Year Coma Now Carries Murder Charge


VALINDA — The death in January of 19-year-old Sandra Zarate, an innocent gang-shooting victim who had languished in a coma 2 1/2 years, has prompted an unusual legal move against her convicted assailant.

Abraham Matilde Gutierrez, 21, now serving a sentence in state prison for attempted murder in the Zarate shooting, faces arraignment this week in Pomona Superior Court for murder. The new charge is allowable under California law because Zarate died after her injury within three years and a day. If convicted, Gutierrez, serving an 18-year term, could see his sentence changed to 37 years to life.

The rare legal maneuver is welcomed by Gutierrez's defense attorney, who has for the past few months unsuccessfully sought a retrial, claiming to have new evidence exonerating his client.

The prosecutor, meanwhile, said a full retrial is not necessary because he already proved Gutierrez fired the gun the night of June 2, 1990, in Valinda. Deputy Dist. Atty. Tom Falls said the case is limited to a simple issue: Did the wound inflicted by that burst of gunfire kill Sandra Zarate?

The unusual case appears headed for a thicket of legal questions before trial ever begins. But for Zarate's father, the legal wrangling means His daughter's accused killer will be brought a step closer to justice.

"My daughter was in a coma; blind, paralyzed; she couldn't speak, she couldn't eat," Joe Zarate, 41, said in a recent interview, his eyes filling with tears. "This guy was going to get 18 years. That's not justice."

When Zarate, a gray-haired machinist, talks about his daughter, he wears a half-smile, as if he were discussing the weather or the latest ballgame scores. But the demeanor masks his exhaustion and pain he has experienced over the past 2 1/2 years.

The family moved away from their former home in La Puente, fearful of gang retaliation in the shooting's aftermath, he said. Now they live with relatives--Zarate will not say where--because his paychecks, smaller because of workdays missed to attend to his wounded daughter, must now stretch to cover her funeral costs.

"I don't sleep very good right now," Zarate said, almost apologetically. "I think about my daughter every day. Sometimes, I say to myself, I'm sorry for letting her go out that night."

Sandra, as the eldest of his four children, occupied a special place in the family, Zarate said. Before the shooting, she was a 16-year-old sophomore at Workman High School in La Puente. She taught catechism classes for youngsters at a Roman Catholic church and occasionally sang in the church choir, he said.

Zarate said he and his wife, Beatrice, were strict with their children. The parents met all their children's friends, instructed their kids to avoid gang members in the neighborhood and made them strictly observe curfews.

The June night his daughter was shot was a rare outing for her, Zarate said. Sandra and her younger sister set out with two boys for a party in West Covina, detouring to Valinda to pick up one of the boys' girlfriends.

That same night, Bassett gang members were having a carwash to raise money for the funeral of a slain fellow gang member. They were gathered in front of a house in the 1100 block of Le Borgne Avenue in Valinda at 11 p.m., just when Zarate and her friends happened to drive by.

According to Falls, the group assumed the slow-moving car belonged to rival gang members who had been taunting them. Gutierrez ran into the street and lobbed a beer bottle at the car. Then he jumped on the back of a motorcycle driven by a fellow gang member and fired several shots at the car, the prosecutor said. One bullet pierced the car's trunk and lodged in Sandra Zarate's brain stem.

Doctors in the emergency room at Queen of the Valley Hospital expected the wounded girl to die immediately. Instead, Sandra hung on.

Falls delayed prosecuting Gutierrez, waiting for Sandra's death, but when she continued to live, he successfully convicted the defendant of attempted murder. Gutierrez was sent to Pelican Bay, a maximum-security prison in Northern California.

Two months after the shooting, Sandra Zarate was sent to a rehabilitation hospital in Tustin, even though doctors offered no hope of her recovery.

"Her eyes opened up," Zarate said. "We had the feeling she understood what was going on."

For the next two years, Sandra breathed on her own without a respirator, but never regained consciousness. Sometimes, she wept wordlessly, tears streaming down her face, Zarate recalled. Four days a week, he would sit with her for two hours before his night-shift job as a machinist. The entire family came on the weekends, Zarate said.

After his medical insurance company spent more than $1 million on her care and balked at paying more, Zarate moved his daughter to Lanterman State Hospital in Pomona.

"We were hoping for a miracle," he said. "Miracles do happen."

During one visit, Zarate said his daughter struggled and actually made a sound.

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