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L.A. jail killer testifies about remorse, avoids death penalty

Heriberto Rodriguez, convicted of killing a fellow jail inmate, tells a jury he is remorseful and gets life in prison instead of the death penalty.

June 19, 2013|By Matt Hamilton, Los Angeles Times

In the end, it was Heriberto Eddie Rodriguez's own words that saved his life.

The prosecutor seeking his execution said Rodriguez's violent attacks against at least half a dozen Los Angeles County jail inmates, including one assault in which he beat and kicked a man to death, were proof that he was beyond redemption.

But the 32-year-old former gang member took the witness stand in his defense and told jurors he was a changed man. He expressed remorse for his crime and denounced his membership in street and prison gangs. He married a single mother and has tried to have a positive influence on her two daughters, he said.

On Wednesday, a jury rejected the death penalty and decided that Rodriguez should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"Everybody felt that by taking the stand and accepting his guilt, Mr. Rodriguez earned himself a final chance," said the jury's foreman, Robert Gonzalez, an aircraft mechanic.

Gonzalez, 50, said he and other jurors hoped Rodriguez would make the most of his opportunity and "do some good" as he spends the rest of his life behind bars.

According to prosecutors, Rodriguez led a life of crime beginning at age 15, when he was charged with gun possession and sent to juvenile hall for his involvement in a murder. As a gang member in the San Fernando Valley, Rodriguez robbed, carjacked and kidnapped people, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Shannon Knight, who prosecuted the case.

In Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, he continued his violent ways, she said.

According to Knight, Rodriguez beat up cellmates and made them sleep on the concrete floor under their beds. He told one victim he'd go after his family if he snitched, Knight said. He was facing the death penalty for killing Chadwick Shane Cochran, who was fatally beaten by Rodriguez and another inmate.

Even after Cochran's death, Rodriguez continued his jailhouse attacks, Knight said. He assaulted one deputy, threatened another and slashed an inmate with a razor, she said.

"He's had enough chances," Knight told jurors during closing arguments earlier this week.

Attorney Christopher C. Chaney, who represented Rodriguez, argued that his client was not beyond hope. Chaney said he took a legal risk by putting Rodriguez on the stand, but he felt that jurors needed to hear from him on how he had changed his ways.

Rodriguez talked about acting as a father figure to his wife's two daughters. He said he was remorseful that the man he killed was no longer around to raise his daughter.

Rodriguez also testified about his difficult upbringing. According to the defense, Rodriguez was raised by an alcoholic, abusive father. The father regularly beat up Rodriguez's mother and when any of her seven children tried to intervene, they risked getting attacked themselves, said John Brown, a private investigator hired by the defense.

Brown said that as the eldest son, it was Rodriguez's duty to placate his drunken father while his mom, brothers and sisters hid across the street until it was safe to return.

The prosecutor, however, dismissed Rodriguez's testimony as untrue and manipulative. Knight said Rodriguez "minimized his role" in Cochran's death by saying that he hit Cochran only while both were facing off during a fight, and that Cochran lost consciousness only because he fell and hit his head on a bench. Witnesses, she said, disputed that account, saying Rodriguez beat and stomped on Cochran while he was defenseless on the ground.

Knight said she was skeptical that Rodriguez has "turned over a new leaf."

Rodriguez is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 2.

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