A state appeals court panel Friday reversed a Valinda man’s conviction for strangling his girlfriend in Monrovia during a dispute in 2014.
The three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal agreed with the defense’s contention that the trial court had prejudicially erred in failing to instruct jurors in Joel Velazquez’s trial on the applicable theories of involuntary manslaughter involving the Sept. 21, 2014, death of his girlfriend, Alice Marie Medina-Kaplan.
Velazquez was convicted in Alhambra in May 2017 of voluntary manslaughter and was subsequently sentenced to 46 years to life in state prison.
“There was evidence presented that defendant is mentally impaired and did not subjectively appreciate the risk the chokehold posed to Alice’s life. Further, although there was conflicting evidence on the point, appellant told police and testified at trial that he was only trying to calm Alice down and make her shut up; he did not want to hurt her. Appellant insisted he never intended to kill Alice, and when he put her in the chokehold it did not occur to him he was putting her life in danger,” the panel noted in its 17-page ruling.
Jurors were instructed on involuntary manslaughter, but that theory of culpability was only available if they found that Velazquez had killed his girlfriend “in the course of doing a lawful act in an unlawful manner, a theory which plainly had no application here,” the justices found, ruling that there “appears to be `more than an abstract possibility’ that the trial court’s instructional error affected the verdict in this case.”
“Because the jury was not instructed on the inherently dangerous assaultive felony or unlawful act theory of involuntary manslaughter, a conviction for voluntary manslaughter was the only option available to hold appellant responsible for his actions without finding him guilty of murder,” the panel found. “Given the evidence of appellant’s serious mental and intellectual disabilities, a conviction for involuntary manslaughter based on a finding that appellant committed a willful act `without intent to kill and without conscious disregard of the risk to human life’ seems reasonably probable.”
Velazquez cut himself and wrote “I love y” on her stomach in blood after realizing the woman he had met about seven months earlier at a homeless shelter was dead, laid down next to the woman inside a vehicle and passed out, according to the appellate court panel’s ruling. He subsequently told police officers at the scene that he had killed his girlfriend, and told police the next day that he never intended to kill her and used the chokehold only to “shut her up,” the justices noted.
Velazquez’s mother and the victim’s father told reporters shortly after the killing that Velazquez and Medina-Kaplan suffered from mental illness.
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