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An appeals court panel Monday reversed the first-degree murder conviction of a man who strangled the mother of his two children, ruling 2-1 that prosecutors failed to prove premeditation and deliberation and modifying his sentence to 15 years to life.

Juan Bravo Lopez had an abusive relationship with 29-year-old Martha Higareda, who lived with him in Compton, and argued with her before killing her in May 2003, according to trial testimony.

Higareda’s son from a former relationship testified that Lopez told him the next morning that his mother had gone to Mexico with her sister.

“My mom wouldn’t go anywhere without taking me or … my … brother and sister,” her oldest child testified.

Lopez drove all three children — 10-year-old Luis, his 5-year-old brother and 3-year-old sister — to their grandmother’s house in Mexico and left them there.

A few days later, a Compton neighbor noticed a rotten smell coming from the family’s apartment and the landlord discovered Higareda’s body under a bunk bed with a belt around her neck. A coroner’s investigator concluded that she had been strangled.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal panel found that there was clear motive for the killing, given the couple’s history of domestic violence, but two of the three justices found no evidence that Lopez had planned in advance to kill Higareda.

The opinion written by Justice Lee Smalley Edmon cited case law.

“It is well established that the brutality of a killing cannot in itself support a finding that the killer acted with premeditation and deliberation,” she wrote.

Justice Luis A. Lavin concurred.

However, Justice Michael Johnson wrote a dissenting opinion on the issue of premeditation, saying the appellate court should not reweigh evidence tried by the lower court.

“Strangling someone to death with an untied belt requires constant and prolonged pressure, applied while literally watching the victim struggle and die,” Johnson wrote. “This alone would support the jury’s finding of first- degree murder.”

Johnson said that conclusion was reinforced by evidence that Lopez had used a belt to choke Higareda on a prior occasion.

Lopez, now 55, was originally sentenced to 25 years to life.

–City News Service

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