Slumped over a courtroom table not far from an electric saw, 38-year-old Gladis Soto sobbed Monday as a prosecutor opened the Ventura woman's murder trial by recounting her thoughts before she shot her sleeping husband through the head, then sliced his body into pieces.
"I was very enraged, I was angry at what he had done to me," Deputy Dist. Atty. Patricia Murphy said Soto told an investigator after the killing. "He kept on doing whatever he wanted. . . . I shot him once in the head."
As Murphy spoke to a Ventura Superior Court jury, Soto, dressed in jailhouse blues, buried her face in her hands and wept uncontrollably.
The sobs punctuated an emotional first day of a trial to determine whether Soto killed her husband in February because years of abuse left her battered and out of rational control, or because she wanted revenge for his chronic infidelity.
No one disputes that Soto killed her husband, cut off his head and limbs, dumped his parts under a bridge and set them on fire.
Jurors, who walked by the big red metal-cutting saw that Soto used in the dismemberment, viewed the results in a series of gruesome photos of 35-year-old welder Pedro Alba after his body was found at two locations.
Leaving the courtroom for a break, a juror who is pregnant collapsed into sobs on a hallway bench and paramedics were called. She eventually rejoined the jury.
While prosecutors insist that Soto considered violence for up to two months before the killing, defense lawyers outlined their case by telling the jury that she shot her husband only after 15 years of mental, physical and sexual abuse gave her no choice.
"She lived 15 years in a prison," defense lawyer Jorge Alvarado said.
In the end, Alba refused to let her take their five children and leave him, he taunted her with his girlfriend, and on the night of his death he returned from a visit with the other woman to rape his wife and toss her aside like trash, Alvarado said.
"She lost all hope for the future . . . and her judgment failed her," Alvarado said. "This action was the termination of her torment. He had chosen the terms of this engagement and he lost."
Lifetime of Shattering Problems
Soto is accused of firing one shot from a .25-caliber handgun into her husband's head and dragging his body to their garage, where she cut him apart so she could lift the head and limbs into the trunk of her Chevy Nova.
She was arrested after a homeless man reported seeing a woman set fire to trash bags at the Ventura River bottom. Authorities identified the body through fingerprints.
Soto, a mother of six, faces 50 years to life in prison if found guilty of using a gun in a premeditated murder.
But defense lawyers argued that she is guilty of no more than voluntary manslaughter, because of her state of mind as a battered woman at the time of the killing.
They cite a lifetime of shattering problems: They say she was repeatedly raped by a cousin as an 8-year-old; disgraced as an unmarried teenage mother in Mexico; and brutalized by Alba throughout their marriage. He repeatedly struck her, broke her ankle when she fled while he was buying drugs, and once threatened to kill their youngest child, claiming the girl was not his baby, lawyers said.
Prosecutor Murphy told jurors, however, that Soto is no victim. She is a strong woman who repeatedly took her small daughter with her to confront Alba's lovers, Murphy said. She graduated from community college with honors. She moved away from her husband when she thought she needed to be apart from him, Murphy said.
But during the first two months of this year, Murphy said, Soto began plotting revenge when she concluded that Alba was continuing to see an Oxnard woman he had pledged to give up as a girlfriend.
In January, she tracked Alba to the woman's house and smashed her car into their vehicles. In February, after Soto found "hickeys" on Alba's neck, she begged $100 from friends to buy a gun from a "cholo" in front of a Ventura market. Within a week, the prosecutor said, Soto killed her husband.
"[She was] driven to murder by a passion for revenge," Murphy said. "[She was] a woman who refused to let go of her husband. . . . She shot and killed him in his bed while he was sleeping, then she tried to get away with it.
"I'm sure every murderer has a reason to kill," the prosecutor said. "But a reason to kill doesn't excuse it or justify it."
'A Crazy Moment'
During her opening statement, Murphy recounted Soto's own version of her troubled life with Alba, but also said that Alba was trying to turn his life around by working hard, rejecting alcohol and drugs and pledging to stop seeing the Oxnard woman.
The prosecutor focused on evidence that Soto methodically planned to harm Alba, including the purchase of the handgun.
"There was no sufficient reason for me to buy it. . . . I was not thinking about killing," Murphy said Soto told investigators. But Soto finally said she bought it for security, "in case he hurt me or something. It was a crazy moment."