FAIRFIELD — A jury heard closing arguments and began deliberations Wednesday in the trial of a man accused of shooting another man in Vacaville in what authorities portray as a gang-related murder.
Rico M. Espitia, 22, is accused of shooting 20-year-old Quinten Nears on July 30, 2011, at the Alamo Gardens apartment complex on Alamo Drive. Jurors over the course of the trial heard testimony from the prosecution that Espitia is a longtime criminal street gang member.
Prosecutor Julie Underwood during her closing arguments repeatedly pointed at Espitia when she talked about the killer of Nears. Espitia sat at the defense table, blinking frequently, but showed no emotion.
“The person who shot (Nears) did a cowardly act,” Underwood said. “Only a coward shoots an unarmed person once in the chest and, as you heard, twice in the back as he was running for his life.”
A few weeks before the murder, Espitia had an argument with Nears in front of Espitia’s gang friends, Underwood said. Espitia flashed a gun, but Nears did not back down, she said.
Not wanting to lose face and status with the gang, Espitia decided to kill Nears the next time they met, Underwood said. Espitia was at Alamo Gardens the night of the murder and later exchanged text messages with his girlfriend that indicated that he had been involved in some type of trouble that night, Underwood said.
A friend of Nears was present during the murder and later held the dying man, Underwood said. This friend refused to name the killer in court. Underwood said that is because he is worried about retaliation, despite his courtroom testimony that he is not scared. She pointed to statements the friend made to the police to buttress her argument.
Underwood again showed a photograph Espitia took of himself in a mirror two-and-a-half weeks after the murder. He is holding a revolver. Underwood interpreted the photograph as Espitia memorializing the crime.
“This defendant is at the scene of the crime and in addition to that, he had a beef with Mr. Nears,” Underwood told the jury. “Put those two things together.”
Defense attorney Sara Johnson centered her closing arguments around her assertion that Vacaville police used bias when identifying Espitia and focused their investigation to name him as the suspect.
It was rumor and hearsay, Johnson said, that led police to believe Espitia was the shooter. Johnson went through a list of witnesses who talked about either hearing Espitia’s name or telling someone he was responsible.
“None of those people were at the shooting,” she told the jury. “(Police) worked backward to justify that conclusion.”
Johnson spent the beginning of her nearly two hours before the jury explaining the process of reasonable doubt. She continued to drive home that point while discussing the testimony of Nears’ friend.
She said the fact should not be forgotten that the friend, the lone eyewitness, never testified that Espitia was the shooter. She also discounted the testimony of Nears’ mother, who said her son’s friend confessed to her that Nears told him before he died that Espitia was the shooter.
Johnson questioned the process used for multiple photo lineups that the friend participated in. She said detectives were trying to coax the friend into identifying Espitia.
A considerable amount of time was also spent on the varying descriptions of the suspect.
“You start going over that stuff and reasonable doubt creeps in your head,” Johnson told the jury.
Johnson said when Espitia left the area for Washington state, it was for a change of scenery and not to run from the law. She said when Espitia returned to Vacaville for a birthday party, it proved he wasn’t in hiding. Johnson then talked about the photo of Espitia posing with a gun. She said, while referencing previous testimony, that there are many reason why someone would pose with a gun that wasn’t his. She said to make the connection that the gun in the photo belonged to Espitia was character assassination.
Underwood’s rebuttal started by clearing up what the friend said about Espitia being the shooter.
“(He) has never said Rico Espitia is not the shooter,” she said. “Don’t let her tell you what he said. He never said that.”
Underwood said if rumors and hearsay are the reasons why the friend allegedly told the victim’s mother that Espitia was the shooter, then Johnson should have asked him about it while the friend was testifying. Underwood also dismissed the notion of police bias. She said the fact that Espitia was in a fight in that complex and had a prior altercation with the victim was evidence.
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