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Ventura County

Appeals Court Denies Plea Bid

Simi Valley man sought to admit to woman's murder without specifying a degree.

October 19, 2002|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

A California appellate court has denied a request by serial rapist and accused killer Vincent Sanchez to plead guilty to murder without specifying the degree of the crime.

The court ruled that because Sanchez is charged with first-degree murder and special circumstance allegations that allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty, he cannot "recast" the charge as murder without a degree.

The decision, released Friday by the 2nd District Court of Appeal, upholds a ruling by Ventura County Superior Court Judge Ken Riley, who refused to let Sanchez enter the plea.

"Obviously we are very pleased with the decision," said Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Lela Henke-Dobroth, who argued the matter before the appeals court a week ago. "We are hopeful we can move ahead to the trial date and get this case completed."

Defense attorneys, however, may try to challenge the decision, which could delay a Jan. 13 trial.

"I think we will be reviewing in the next day or two whether we will be filing a petition to the California Supreme Court," Deputy Public Defender Jan Helfrich said. "I think there is a good possibility that we will."

Sanchez, 32, of Simi Valley is accused of gunning down Megan Barroso, 20, of Moorpark during a rape and kidnapping attempt last year. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Defense lawyers admit Sanchez killed Barroso but insist there was no rape attempt.

Instead, they contend that Sanchez, overcome with road rage, shot Barroso with an assault rifle while chasing her on a darkened freeway on July 5, 2001.

For months they have argued that state law allows their client to plead guilty to murder without specifying a degree.

In California, murder is divided into two categories. First-degree involves a killing that is either planned or committed in conjunction with another crime, such as robbery or rape. All other murders are second-degree.

During arguments before the appellate court, Chief Deputy Public Defender Neil Quinn cited a statute that he said permits suspects to plead guilty to crimes and compels judges to determine the degree.

But three appellate justices rejected Quinn's argument. They ruled that "murder with special circumstances is first-degree murder as a matter of law and, therefore, is not a crime 'distinguished into degrees.' "

The ruling does not preclude Sanchez from pleading guilty to first-degree murder. But Helfrich said that will not occur.

Sanchez already is facing life in prison after pleading guilty to sex-assault charges last year.

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