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Court Gets Sanchez, Cruz Cases

Rights: The 2nd District appellate jurists listen to trial issues concerning a Simi Valley rapist and an Oxnard man who was cleared in a Santa Barbara shooting.

October 10, 2002|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Taking up two high-profile cases from Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, a state appellate court heard arguments Wednesday on the rights of crime suspects to avoid jury trials versus the rights of prosecutors to pursue their cases in court.

The cases involve a Simi Valley serial rapist who wants to plead guilty to murder without specifying a degree of the crime and a man cleared in a Santa Barbara shooting whom prosecutors want the right to retry.

After being rejected by a lower court, attorneys for serial rapist and accused killer Vincent Sanchez are asking justices at the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Ventura to allow their client to plead guilty to murder.

Sanchez could face the death penalty if a jury finds him guilty of first-degree murder and special allegations that he killed 20-year-old Megan Barroso during a kidnap and rape attempt last year.

Sanchez has admitted killing the woman. But he denies that he tried to abduct or rape her.

On three occasions he has attempted to plead guilty or no contest and accept a life prison sentence.

But prosecutors, who want the death penalty, say they cannot fathom how the case would proceed if Sanchez were allowed to plead to "plain" murder.

"The defendant contemplates that he can plead guilty to murder without specifying degree, notwithstanding that the people have [alleged] murder in the first degree," Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Lela Henke-Dobroth argued Wednesday.

The Ventura County prosecutor told the justices there is no legal precedent for Sanchez's request. And she argued the public has a right to a jury trial.

But Chief Deputy Public Defender Neil Quinn argued the law does allow for such a plea and urged the justices to grant his request.

Sanchez, a 31-year-old handyman, already is facing life in prison after pleading guilty to numerous sex-assault charges last year.

After Henke-Dobroth and Quinn stepped away from the podium, the justices called a second murder case in which prosecutors in Santa Barbara are also fighting for the right to a jury trial.

Nearly five years ago Oxnard resident Efren Cruz, now 28, was convicted of second-degree murder, attempted murder and possession of a dagger in connection with a shooting at a downtown Santa Barbara parking garage.

In January 2001, Cruz filed a petition of habeas corpus alleging new evidence would prove his cousin, Gerardo Reyes, was the shooter.

After a three-month hearing, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa, who presided over Cruz's first trial, found the new evidence persuasive. Ochoa set aside Cruz's conviction and ordered him set free.

Prosecutors dismissed the case, but outside the courtroom insisted they still had a right to retry Cruz as the shooter. Ochoa then issued a supplemental order barring prosecutors from such a retrial based on double-jeopardy protections under state and federal law.

The Santa Barbara County district attorney appealed that ruling and posed an unprecedented question to the appellate court: Can prosecutors retry a man for pulling the trigger in a deadly shooting after a judge ruled he was innocent?

Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Gerald McC. Franklin told the justices that a judge's ruling in a habeas corpus hearing is a far cry from a jury's verdict and does not equate to an acquittal, which would bar prosecutors from a retrial.

But Ventura defense attorney Kevin DeNoce argued that Ochoa's finding that Cruz was not the shooter constitutes an acquittal.

DeNoce said that when prosecutors dismiss a case on grounds of insufficient evidence, the law precludes them from a retrial. "That is exactly what happened in this case," DeNoce said.

He further argued that Cruz, who was in court Wednesday, should not have to live under a cloud of anxiety. "Efren Cruz has served four years in prison," DeNoce said. "He should not have to live with this hanging over his head....The people had their day in court. It is time for closure."

The appellate court is expected to rule on both the Sanchez and Cruz cases before the end of the year.

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