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Penalty Phase for Murderer Begins Today

Defense faces a difficult job in convincing a Ventura County jury to spare the killer-rapist.

August 11, 2003|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Defending serial rapist Vincent Sanchez against accusations of sexually motivated murder was no easy task.

But defense attorneys now face an even greater challenge: convincing jurors who convicted Sanchez that he does not deserve to die for killing a 20-year-old Moorpark College student during a kidnapping and rape attempt two years ago.

Last week, Sanchez, 32, was convicted of first-degree murder and related charges for shooting student Megan Barroso in her car at a Moorpark intersection July 5, 2001, and then dragging her away and sexually assaulting her before she died.

The jury must now decide whether the former Simi Valley construction worker should be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole.

When the penalty phase of the trial begins today, Barroso's grieving parents and one friend will be called by prosecutors to describe how her death has affected their lives.

Facts about Sanchez's criminal background will be introduced, including a 1992 felony conviction for injuring an ex-girlfriend's child and rapes he pleaded guilty to committing between 1996 and 2001 that left a trail of emotionally scarred young women.

Four sexual assault victims, who were allowed to testify during the murder trial, are expected to return to tell jurors how those assaults altered their lives.

Deputy Public Defenders Neil Quinn and Jan Helfrich say such emotionally charged testimony could keep their client from receiving a fair trial.

At a Ventura County Superior Court hearing last week, Quinn accused prosecutors of inappropriately trying to stir up the emotions of jurors to obtain a death penalty and asked Judge Ken Riley to limit the amount of so-called victim-impact evidence.

"What I'd like the court to look at is the totality of what is going on here," Quinn argued. "Let's not delude ourselves: We know the purpose is to enrage."

Quinn and Helfrich also took issue with a videotape montage chronicling Barroso's life that would be presented by the prosecution during the testimony of Susan Barroso, the victim's mother.

Deputy Dist. Attys. Lela Henke-Dobroth and Dee Corona said the 11-minute tape offers only a snippet of Barroso's 20 years of life and, paired with witness testimony, would give jurors a balanced view of the harm Sanchez has caused.

"I think it is entirely appropriate," Henke-Dobroth said.

Riley ruled that prosecutors could play the tape, but limited the number of prosecution witnesses. In doing so, he granted a defense motion to exclude the testimony of Barroso's religious studies teacher and a friend who was with her the night she died.

Prosecutors estimate it will take two days to present their case. The defense case will likely begin midweek and continue for about six days.

Quinn and Helfrich are expected to focus on Sanchez's emotional instability and intoxication at the time of Barroso's slaying, factors jurors are instructed to take into account when making a decision.

Other factors include the circumstances of the crime, prior felony convictions and other acts of violence -- factors prosecutors will likely argue show Sanchez's true character.

And as prosecutors try to persuade jurors that Sanchez is a violent predator who deserves the death penalty, defense attorneys will likely try to show him as a complex and troubled individual who deserves mercy.

The defense may also argue that if jurors have any so-called lingering doubt about Sanchez's guilt, they should vote in favor of life imprisonment.

That argument was successful in the 1998 Ventura County case of convicted killer Alan Brett Holland.

At the penalty phase, Holland testified that he did not shoot an elderly woman during a robbery, as prosecutors had alleged, but because she insulted him. Jurors said Holland's version left them with doubts about their earlier verdicts, and they rejected a death sentence.

Whether Sanchez testifies remains to be seen. He did not testify during the three-month trial, but generally sat hunched over the counsel table taking notes or whispering to his lawyers.

Jurors heard his recorded voice on a tape-recorded police interview, a phone call and a videotape in which he is seen raping a 20-year-old woman and ordering her to "knock it off" as she cries out in pain.

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