Tuesday, April 18, 2017
S.C. Upholds Death Sentence in Van Nuys Stabbing Murder
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court yesterday unanimously upheld the death sentence in the 2000 strangling and stabbing murder of a woman whose body was found in the parking lot of a Van Nuys apartment complex.
The court, in an opinion by Justice Ming Chin, agreed that there was insufficient evidence to find that Ruben Becerrada killed Maria Arevalo by lying in wait, so that special circumstance had to be stricken. But the justices concluded that two other special circumstances, murder of a witness and kidnap-murder, were validly proven and were sufficient to sustain the death sentence, which was imposed by now-retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Pounders.
Prosecutors said the couple began dating after Arevalo separated from her husband, around 1997 or 1998. They lived at Arevalo’s apartment until August 1999, when Becerrada raped Arevalo.
Arevalo was determined to press charges, prosecutors said, and obtained a restraining order. She met with the deputy district attorney assigned to her case the day before she was killed.
Witnesses living right down the street from the defendant said they were woken by screams that morning and saw the victim being kicked and beaten, then repeatedly struck with a beer bottle, before Becerrada threw her in the car and drove off. Arevalo’s body was found in the parking lot of the Van Nuys building where Becerrada formerly lived, and an autopsy revealed she had suffered a blunt injury to the head before being stabbed and strangled.
Police initially arrested Becerrada only for rape, but tied him to the murder through DNA and other forensic evidence. Subsequent investigation determined that on the morning she was killed, Arevalo went to a store and purchased Marlboro cigarettes.
Since this was Becerrada’s preferred brand, and Arevalo did not smoke, the prosecution theorized that Arevalo was trying to pursue peace with her former lover.
The defense case at trial was that Becerrada killed Arevalo, but not with premeditation. The prosecution countered that Arevalo was a victim of “intimate partner violence,” previously described as battered women’s syndrome, and that Becerrada lured her to her death when he learned that she did not drop the rape charge when she met with the prosecutor.
Chin, in his opinion for the high court, said there was substantial evidence to support the theory that the defendant killed Arevalo because she did not drop the rape charge. But the separate theory that he asked her to come to his apartment so that he could do so did not hold up because there was no evidence he knew she hadn’t dropped the charge, before she came over.
But Chin went on to say that jurors properly considered the two special circumstances that were supported by substantial evidence, and the facts of the case as a whole, in concluding there was enough evidence to return the death penalty verdict.
“[F]inding the special circumstance invalid does not additionally mean the jury had to find that defendant simply erupted in anger,. The jury clearly found—on good, solid evidence— that defendant intended to kill the victim if and when he learned that she would not drop the rape charge. It clearly, and reasonably, rejected any eruption in anger claim. The only question on which the evidence was insufficient was whether defendant learned Maria would not drop the charges when he spoke with her on the telephone early that morning, or not until she came to his home with a peace offering about an hour later. This insufficiency of the evidence regarding the timing was fatal to the special-circumstance finding, but, in this case, it did not significantly affect defendant’s culpability for the murder that, the jury clearly found, he had long intended to commit if Maria did not drop the charge.”
People v. Becerrada, 17 S.O.S. 2009, was argued in the Supreme Court by Deputy State Public Defender Arnold Erickson and Deputy Attorney General Kimara A. Aarons.
Copyright 2017, Metropolitan News Company