By PAUL ANDERSON, City News Service
SANTA ANA - A 15-year-old boy shot a woman in Santa Ana for confronting drug dealers outside of her apartment more than 19 years ago and then confessed to the crime a day later when he was arrested outside a liquor store, a prosecutor told a judge today in a nonjury trial in Juvenile Court.
The attorney for Manuel Rojas told the judge her client, who is 34, was coerced into a confession by police.
Even if Rojas is convicted by Orange County Superior Court Judge Nick Dourbetas he cannot be punished because the judge is not allowed to punish defendants older than 25 in Juvenile Court.
Original co-defendant John Raymond Breceda, 34, pleaded guilty Nov. 18, 2011, but likewise will not be punished because of his age.
Prosecutors are pressing forward with the case to bring some closure to the victims' family and to get the conviction on the record, Hunt said.
In April 2009, an Orange County grand jury indicted Rojas and Breceda for the March 13, 1994, fatal shooting of 55-year-old Valentina Giles Roque in front of her residence at the Casa Serena Apartments, 330 W. Washington Ave., Santa Ana.
Attorneys for Rojas and Breceda got the charges dismissed based on their ages at the time of the shooting. Rojas was 15 and Breceda was just two weeks away from his 15th birthday.
State law was changed in 1995 to allow prosecutors the latitude to charge juveniles as adults.
Deputy District Attorney Seton Hunt wants Breceda to testify during the trial, but today Breceda's attorney told the judge that his client wants to talk it over with his sister first. Breceda was ordered to return to court Thursday.
Breceda is in custody after pleading guilty in July to stealing a vehicle and evading police, according to court records.
"In short, this case is going to show that the defendant confessed to murder," Hunt told the judge in his opening statement.
The victim's son was making food for his night-shift job when his mother was shot outside their apartment building. She struggled back to the family's apartment and collapsed, prompting her son to call 911, Hunt said.
The son and his wife and gunshot residue on them, but that is not uncommon when coming into contact to a gunshot victim, Hunt said. The son quickly consented to a search of the apartment by police, the prosecutor added.
Roque's killer was two to three feet away when the gun was fired, Hunt said.
A day after the killing, Rojas was seen outside a liquor store about two blocks from the crime scene appearing to be dealing drugs, drawing the attention of an officer on patrol, Hunt said.
Rojas had a gun on him, but told the officer, who wrestled him to the ground, that he did not intend to draw on the officer, but wanted to throw it away, Hunt said. The gun appeared to resemble the one used in Roque's shooting, Hunt added.
Rojas initially told investigators he wasn't involved in the shooting but heard "rumor on the street" who was responsible, Hunt said. Eventually, Rojas admitted he shot the victim, Hunt alleged.
The prosecutor said he was "uncertain" what Breceda would say in testimony, but investigators believe he gave Rojas the gun and witnessed the shooting.
Investigators suspected the two were responsible for the shooting in 1994, but ballistics testing of the murder weapon was inconclusive so the two were not charged, Hunt said.
Santa Ana police revived the case in 2008, and with the help of improved ballistics testing technology investigators were able to link the two men to the shooting, Hunt said.
Rojas' attorney, Heather Moorhead of the Orange County Alternate Defender's Office, said her client, "confessed to a crime he did not commit."
Rojas was taking his nephew to a store to play video games when he was arrested, Moorhead said.
"He was taken down to the ground and his left wrist was broken," Moorhead said.
Police left Rojas in the back of a squad car and he was in so much pain that he threw up on himself, Moorhead said. Police continued to question the youth after he was taken to Western Medical Center, she added.
Moorhead said the evidence will show Roque was shot while she was on the balcony of her apartment and claimed that the victim's son and his wife have changed their stories over the years.
"And her story doesn't match her husband's story," Moorhead said.
Rojas allegedly told police he shot the victim from street level, but that is contradicted by the evidence, which shows she was shot at close range, Moorhead said. Also, the evidence shows the bullet was on a "downward trajectory," Moorhead said.
Ballistics tests on the gun and the bullet extracted from the victim were "inconclusive" in 2001 and 2008, Moorhead said.
"In 2009, with the advent of new technology now, all of a sudden, there's a match," Moorhead said.
A police officer who was first on the scene of the shooting testified today that the victim's family, including her son, was "very distraught, broken up, tearful, in a state of shock."
On Monday, Moorhead moved to have the charges dismissed on the basis of due process and denial of a speedy trial.
Dourbetas said he will rule on the motion to dismiss the charges after he has heard evidence in the case.
Rojas, who is serving a third-strike life sentence for robbery convictions, is charged with murder with a sentencing enhancement for use of a gun.