People v. Mendez

Decision Date01 July 2019
Docket NumberS129501
Citation443 P.3d 896,7 Cal.5th 680,249 Cal.Rptr.3d 49
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Julian Alejandro MENDEZ, Defendant and Appellant.

Randall Bookout, under appointment by the Supreme Court, for Defendant and Appellant.

Kamala D. Harris and Xavier Becerra, Attorneys General, Dane R. Gillette and Gerald A. Engler, Chief Assistant Attorneys General, Julie L. Garland and Ronald S. Matthias, Assistant Attorneys General, Holly D. Wilkens, Meagan J. Beale, Michael T. Murphy, Ronald A. Jakob and Christine Y. Friedman, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.

Opinion of the Court by Cuéllar, J.

This case concerns the murders of Michael Faria and Jessica Salazar. The People charged three members of a gang called North Side Colton with murdering Faria after he claimed allegiance to a rival gang called West Side Verdugo, and with murdering Salazar after she witnessed Faria’s killing. The three gang members charged here were Joe "Gato" Rodriguez, Daniel "Huero" Lopez, and Defendant Julian Alejandro "Midget" Mendez. Mendez was tried jointly with Rodriguez and Lopez, but by a separate jury. Mendez was convicted and sentenced to death. This automatic appeal concerns him alone. We affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

Among the most crucial evidence presented against Mendez at trial was testimony from two people: a friend of the accused, Samuel "Devil" Redmond, who pleaded guilty to first degree murder to avoid the death penalty; and a friend of the victims, Sergio Lizarraga. The following description of the crimes relies primarily on accounts from these two witnesses.

A. The Murder of Michael Faria

Redmond and Mendez had been friends since childhood and shared an apartment in Colton, California. At trial, Redmond testified about what happened on the night of the killings. He and Mendez drank alcohol and smoked methamphetamine in their apartment with Lopez, Mendez’s eventual codefendant. The three men then set out in Redmond’s SUV, a black Nissan Pathfinder, to meet up with friends living at a nearby Four Seasons apartment complex. There, they encountered Mendez’s other eventual codefendant, Rodriguez, who suggested they meet some fellow North Side Colton gang members — specifically, Art "Rascal" Luna and his brothers — at their house on Michigan Street in Colton. When the four of them arrived, they saw Luna in a car with a "bunch of kids." And walking along the street was another group of kids, whom Redmond estimated were 15 or 16 years old.

Among this latter group were the murder victims in this case: Michael Faria and Jessica Salazar. With them were Lizarraga, Greg Frias, and David Flores. Lizarraga later provided the most detailed witness account of Faria’s death. According to Lizarraga’s testimony, he and his four companions saw a black SUV park across the street. The man who appeared to have been the driver emerged from the car and walked to the house. Two other men exited the SUV and struck up a conversation with Salazar. Faria and Flores were standing nearby. When Lizarraga beckoned them, they started to walk away. Then one of the two men said to Salazar, "I think I know you." She turned around and started talking to him again.

At that moment, the man who appeared to have been driving the SUV walked up to Lizarraga and Faria. Faria asked him, "Where are you from?" Without answering, the man put the question back to Faria. Faria answered, "I back[ ] up the West." The man retorted, "Fuck the Westside. North [S]ide Colton." That worried Lizarraga, who interpreted the back-and-forth as an escalating gang challenge. Seeking to calm the situation, Lizarraga tried to get between the man and Faria, telling the latter, "It’s cool. Just chill out, walk away." Then, as Lizarraga turned around, the man punched him in the face.

Lizarraga persisted in trying to de-escalate the situation. Moments later, he saw Flores being chased. At that point, Faria was still standing next to Lizarraga. But then a group of people descended on Faria and beat him to the ground. Lizarraga, having backed away, started running towards Faria. Someone grabbed Lizarraga by the shirt. Salazar intervened and told Lizarraga’s would-be assailant, "No he’s cool. He’s not from the West." The man let go. But before Lizarraga could do anything else, someone shot Faria. Lizarraga would later tell law enforcement that he was 75 percent sure Rodriguez shot Faria, but at trial he could not "remember any faces from that night."

Redmond testified that, after he alighted from the SUV, he saw Mendez, Rodriguez, and Lopez talking to Salazar. Redmond and Lopez began to walk towards Luna’s house across the street, leaving Mendez and Rodriguez with Salazar and her friends. Moments later, Redmond heard an argument. Then, standing with Lopez and Luna, Redmond saw a fight break out and a crowd gathering. A chase involving Mendez and Rodriguez ensued. Redmond stayed put, but Lopez and Luna, the latter of whom had just been handed a gun by his younger brother, started walking towards the fray. Lopez quickly turned around and sprinted back. He told Redmond, "Hurry up. Let’s go get Midget." So the two men ran back to the SUV and started driving. Soon after, they saw Mendez and Rodriguez racing their way. Mendez was holding a gun.

B. The Murder of Jessica Salazar

Redmond also testified about the next few minutes, which resulted in a second killing. Once he, Lopez, Rodriguez, and Mendez were back in Redmond’s SUV, they saw Salazar on the sidewalk "going hysterical," "crying," and "not knowing where to go." Mendez directed Rodriguez to tell Salazar that she should get into the SUV, since they knew each other. Rodriguez did so, and she complied. Mendez told Redmond, "Drive. Get [us] out of here." After stopping back at the Four Seasons, they entered the freeway and drove. Salazar, meanwhile, was "going nuts," crying, and asking repeatedly, "Why did you do that?"

With fuel running low, Redmond pulled into a gas station. Although at trial his memory of what happened next was "foggy," Redmond recalled going to the bathroom with Mendez. Either Lopez or Rodriguez joined them, and the other stayed near the car with Salazar. Mendez said, "She’s gotta die."

From there, they got back in the SUV and started driving again. Redmond drove for 20 to 30 minutes before coming upon a dirt road. They took it. Eventually, someone said, "I gotta take a piss." Redmond pulled over, and the four men got out. The area was dark and deserted. "She’s gotta die. She’s gotta die," Mendez repeated. He urged Rodriguez to kill Salazar, saying, "You know her" and "[s]he’s going to identify you." Rodriguez refused. But when Mendez told him to "drag her out," Rodriguez pulled Salazar from the SUV. She panicked, crying, "Stop it" and "Don’t." Rodriguez got back in the SUV, leaving Mendez and Redmond alone with Salazar. Mendez was holding a gun, and Salazar was pleading for her life. Mendez told Redmond to hold her. But Salazar tripped. She fell, started to get up, raised her hands — and Mendez shot her.

Moments later, someone saw a car approaching and said, "Come on, let’s go." Mendez responded, "No, I have to put two in her head." He tried to shoot Salazar again, but the gun jammed. Seeing this, and wary of the oncoming car, Redmond said, "I’m leaving." Mendez gave up on trying to clear the jam and got into the car with Redmond, Lopez, and Rodriguez. They drove off into the night.

C. Aftermath

Redmond further testified about what happened after he, Rodriguez, Lopez, and Mendez departed from the scene of Salazar’s killing. They set out for Redmond and Mendez’s apartment. During the drive, Mendez suggested burning the SUV to get rid of the vehicle, saying he wanted to ensure they "[c]an’t tie it back to me." Redmond responded, "You’re fucking crazy. It’s my truck. I paid for it."

When they arrived at the apartment, Mendez directed Redmond not to park in front of the building. Once inside, Mendez took everyone’s shoes and clothing and put them in a bag. He also walked them through setting up alibis. Mendez suggested that Redmond and Lopez say that they were at a motel the whole night with two female friends. Mendez planned to say he was with his girlfriend at the apartment. It is unclear whether Rodriguez crafted an alibi. Several days later, Mendez’s older brother told Redmond to switch the tires on his SUV with those from a white Isuzu Rodeo — an SUV similarly sized to Redmond’s Nissan Pathfinder — which Redmond did. Mendez was later arrested driving the Rodeo, and its tires matched the tracks found near Salazar’s body.

D. Trial

At the guilt phase of his trial, a jury found Mendez guilty of first degree murder for the killings of both Faria and Salazar. It also found true two special circumstances: that Mendez committed multiple murders under Penal Code section 190.2, subdivision (a)(3) and, as to the Salazar murder, that he killed a witness to prevent her testimony in a criminal proceeding under section 190.2, subdivision (a)(10).1 Finally, the jury found three enhancements to be true. It found that Mendez personally discharged a firearm causing the deaths of both Faria and Salazar, within the meaning of section 12022.53, subdivision (d); that he personally discharged a firearm causing the deaths of both Faria and Salazar for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a criminal street gang, within the meaning of sections 12022.53, subdivision (e), and 186.22, subdivision (b)(1); and that he committed both murders for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a criminal street gang, within the meaning of section 186.22, subdivision (b)(1).

At the penalty phase, the jury returned a death sentence against Mendez on the two counts of first degree murder, which the trial court imposed. The trial court also sentenced Mendez to 56 years to life in prison on the enhancements.

II. DISCUSSION

Mendez mounts multiple challenges to his convictions and death...

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