People v. Bracamontes

Decision Date11 April 2022
Docket NumberS139702
Parties The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Manuel BRACAMONTES, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court

Mary K. McComb, State Public Defender, under appointment by the Supreme Court, and AJ Kutchins, Deputy State Public Defender, for Defendant and Appellant.

Xavier Becerra and Rob Bonta, Attorneys General, Gerald A. Engler, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Julie L. Garland, Assistant Attorney General, Holly D. Wilkens, Theodore M. Cropley and Michael T. Murphy, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

Opinion of the Court by Corrigan, J.

A jury convicted Manuel Bracamontes of the first degree murder of nine-year-old Laura Arroyo, with special circumstances for committing the murder while engaged in kidnapping, lewd act on a child under 14, and oral copulation.1 A death sentence was returned and imposed. We affirm.

A. Guilt Phase
1. Prosecution Evidence

Luis and Laura Arroyo lived in a San Diego apartment complex with their children: Augustine, aged 11; Jose, aged 10; and Laura, aged 9.2 Maggie Porter lived in the same complex with her three children, including four-year-old Jessica and an infant son, Manuel Jr. Laura and Jessica were "best friends" and played together almost daily. Defendant, Manuel Jr.’s father, had lived in the Porter apartment, but moved. After his departure, he was often seen at the complex.

On June 19, 1991, Laura came home from school and played outside with her friends, including preteens Elizabeth Alcarez and Leonor Gomez. Defendant greeted the girls as he walked past them toward Porter's apartment. Defendant came back a second time and told Elizabeth her mother was looking for her. Laura went home with Elizabeth, but her mother said she had not been looking for her. The children played outside until just before 9:00 p.m., then Elizabeth walked Laura home and saw her go inside. Luis had come home from work about 8:30 p.m. Laura asked if she could play a bit longer and he agreed. At about the same time, a neighbor and his friend saw defendant walking toward the complex from his car. They invited him to join them but he declined. Defendant's black Volkswagen Jetta was seen leaving the complex about 20 minutes later.

Once home, Laura went upstairs and watched television with her mother. Five minutes later, the doorbell rang and Laura went downstairs to answer it.

Mrs. Arroyo heard Laura asking, "Who is it?" but heard nothing else. A few minutes after that, Mrs. Arroyo went downstairs and noticed the front door and metal security door were ajar. Thinking nothing was amiss, she began cooking. When Luis and his sons came downstairs, Mrs. Arroyo sent one of the boys to look for Laura. He could not find her, and they noticed Laura's shoes were inside. The entire family went searching for Laura. Unsuccessful, they called police at 9:31 p.m. Officers and neighbors searched for Laura throughout the night.

About 6:30 the next morning, Laura's body was found in the parking lot of an industrial complex in Chula Vista, three-and-a-half miles from her home. She lay on her back, wearing pink pajamas and underwear. She had been stabbed at least 10 times in the upper body and torso. The concrete beneath her had been chipped away at various spots, and her wounds were consistent with having been stabbed with a pickaxe. Petechial hemorrhaging indicated strangulation. Other injuries included a broken nose and chipped teeth, along with bruising and lacerations. Although her genitalia bore no signs of sexual assault, swabs were collected from her mouth, vagina, anus, and neck. An initial examination did not reveal the presence of sperm.

Between July 14 and August 1, 1991, Chula Vista Police interviewed defendant four times. Initially, he claimed he first went to the apartment complex at about 9:45 in the evening, only after Porter called and told him about Laura's disappearance. He said he had not been to the complex in a week. He subsequently asserted he went to the complex earlier that day to pick up Manuel Jr. and returned that afternoon to drop off the baby. He denied any involvement with Laura's disappearance and insisted he never spoke to Laura or any of the neighborhood girls. Defendant ultimately refused to answer more questions but did provide hair, blood, and saliva samples.

On August 1, 1991, pursuant to warrant, officers searched defendant's residence and car, seizing clothing and tools. These items, along with evidence recovered during the autopsy, were sent to an FBI lab. A blue-green fiber found on Laura's pants was deemed potentially consistent with a fiber from a sweater found at defendant's home and with other fibers recovered from his car. At the time, no other physical evidence tied him to Laura's murder.

Police investigated other leads. Mrs. Arroyo and three others reported seeing a suspicious brown car parked in a culde-sac near the complex. Neither the car nor any occupants were ever identified. Officers also investigated a dispute over the Arroyos’ sale of their taco shop but found no link to the abduction. In June 1992, approximately a year after the killing, police spoke again with defendant, who continued to deny any involvement. No new evidence was uncovered.

Eleven years later, the San Diego County District Attorney's Office established a "cold case" unit, and the evidence in Laura's case was reexamined in 2003. Chula Vista Police also sought assistance from the San Diego Police crime lab. New slides were prepared from the autopsy swabs using a method that had not been employed in 1991. The new slides revealed the presence of sperm in swabs from Laura's mouth, neck, and fingernails. A DNA profile was developed and found to match DNA taken from defendant's hair sample. The probability of a random match was one in 2.7 trillion in the Latino population, one in 3.2 trillion among Caucasians, and one in nine trillion among African-Americans. Laura's pajamas were placed under an alternate light source which revealed biological matter. Tested samples from the garment confirmed the presence of sperm. The resulting DNA profile matched defendant's reference sample. The likelihood of a random match was one in 30 quadrillion.

On October 24, 2003, more than 12 years after Laura's murder, district attorney investigators Robert Marquez and Michael Howard went to Porter's apartment looking for defendant. Manuel Jr. said his mother was not home, but defendant was expected to pick him up shortly. While the investigators waited in their car, defendant arrived and parked his Ford Explorer in front of the apartment. As Manuel Jr. approached the car, the investigators drove up and stopped in front of the Explorer. Marquez approached defendant and identified himself. Howard drew his gun, opened the passenger door, and told defendant he was under arrest for murder. Defendant initially raised his hands but then sped off. Howard fired twice toward the fleeing car.

Early the next morning, officers saw defendant's Explorer parked at a Chula Vista motel and placed a tracking device on it. About 10:30 a.m., the device indicated defendant had left the motel. Two officers in separate marked patrol cars found the Explorer parked in an alley. After blocking either end of the alley, officers approached on foot. Defendant started the engine and made a U-turn as officers drew their guns and ordered him to stop. He sped past them and drove over a curb to escape. After a high-speed freeway chase, defendant lost control of his car, crashed, and was arrested.

2. Defense Evidence

Five years after the murder and eight years before the cold case review, Chula Vista Police Detective Susan Rodriguez looked into the case. Defendant's Jetta, which had been sold, was reexamined in vain. Latent fingerprints from the Arroyos’ front door did not match his. Rodriguez also recontacted a psychic who had been consulted during the initial investigation. No new leads were developed. Evidence from Laura's body was not reexamined because Rodriguez had no reason to doubt the medical examiner's conclusion ruling out sexual assault.

Manuel Jr. testified that when Marquez and Howard first approached him at the apartment they only identified themselves by name.3 They refused to tell defendant why he was being arrested and both men shot at defendant's fleeing car. Several other witnesses testified about the attempted arrest. Defendant checked into a motel later that night using his real name.

B. Penalty Phase
1. Prosecution Evidence

Laura's parents and two brothers described the impact of her life and murder. Laura wanted to be a high school cheerleader and then a teacher, a role she often assumed while playing with friends. She was friendly with everyone and her mother's constant companion. The family trip to Disneyland was replaced by Laura's funeral. Laura was buried in the dress she was to wear for her first communion. Laura's brothers were afraid to go anywhere after the murder. The family kept Laura's room unchanged for six years after her death and still visited her grave every Sunday and on her birthday. Mari Peterson, Laura's third grade teacher, testified about the impact of Laura's death on her and her class. The jury was also shown a two-and-a-half minute video of an interview between Peterson and Laura filmed a few weeks before the crimes.

In June 1996, Porter told defendant she wanted to end their relationship and he became violent. He refused to leave, pushed her, and held her down by the arm and neck. Photos showed abrasions to Porter's upper body. Defendant pled guilty to inflicting corporal injury on the mother of his child.4

2. Defense Evidence

Twenty-one defense witnesses testified that defendant was incapable of committing the murder. Porter related she married defendant shortly before trial and believed he was not capable of killing Laura. Porter's ex-husband gave similar testimony. Porter's two adult children described defendant...

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