The California Supreme Court refused Wednesday to review the case of two men convicted of the murder of an Iraq War veteran whose body was discovered in the trunk of his smoldering car in the concrete riverbed of the Los Angeles River in South Gate.
Anthony Silvas and Juan Vallejo were convicted in March 2018 of first-degree murder for the October 2006 killing of Jesse Aguilar, 24.
Jurors acquitted the two men of a torture charge.
Aguilar had been struck in the head, wrapped in plastic, cloth and rope and had his feet bound together with wire, Deputy District Attorney Kenneth Von Helmolt told jurors during the trial.
Aguilar’s body was found in a fetal position in the trunk of his blue Toyota Corolla, which was found smoldering on the concrete riverbed below the Long Beach (710) Freeway on the evening of Oct. 26, 2006.
The motive for the killing was unclear, but a former brother-in-law of Silvas testified that Silvas told him shortly before the murder that he was extremely upset that Aguilar had visited Silvas’ girlfriend, according to the prosecutor.
Silvas told his former brother-in-law that the “white fool got handled” and was “cracked,” and allegedly admitted to his then-girlfriend in 2007 that he had killed Aguilar, and said the victim was alive while being set on fire, the prosecutor told jurors.
The prosecutor told jurors during the trial that Silvas’ sister told police she spoke to Aguilar — whom she said had been selling methamphetamine with her brother — the evening before he was found dead, and said the victim told her he was going to meet her brother that night.
Phone records showed the victim unsuccessfully tried to call Silvas three times, Silvas calling the land line to Vallejo’s residence and Silvas then calling the victim — the last phone call he received, according to Von Helmolt.
Defense attorneys had urged jurors to acquit Silvas and Vallejo of both charges, with Silvas’ attorney arguing that the victim’s body had been set on fire after he was already dead.
“The question is whether they proved a murder. The torture (charge) is absolutely absurd,” Silvas’ lawyer, Alan Kessler, told jurors.
Silvas’ attorney questioned the credibility of the account of his client’s ex-girlfriend, telling jurors that she had given different versions of what had happened. The lawyer argued that the body was dumped and set on fire after Aguilar was killed.
Vallejo’s attorney, Patrick Thomason, said there was no evidence that his client was a direct perpetrator or aided and abetted in the killing, calling it a “failure of proof” by the prosecution.
The defense lawyer said DNA evidence linking Vallejo to a cigarette butt found in the victim’s car was “degraded” and “only a partial profile.”
“I ask, `Can you trust the DNA evidence?”’ Thomason told jurors, noting that a criminalist could not say when the cigarette was left in the vehicle.
Vallejo and Silvas were sentenced in April 2018 to 25 years to life in state prison, with Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark S. Arnold telling the two, “You both deserve every moment in prison that you can receive.”
The judge — who said he hoped that Aguilar was dead when his body was set on fire — cited a “plethora of evidence” in denying a request by defense attorneys to reduce the defendants’ convictions to second-degree murder.
The victim’s mother, Nancy Aguilar, said then that she believed her son was burned alive.
She called her son’s killers “ruthless” and “monsters,” and said they “took a part of my life as well” and left Aguilar’s two daughters without a father.
“I am forever left with the question `Why? What was the motive?’ she told the judge.
Last September, a three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected the defense’s contention that jurors were not properly instructed in the trial.
In their 24-page ruling, the appellate court justices noted that the evidence of premeditation and deliberation was “overwhelming,” and that Silvas’ phone calls with Vallejo and Aguilar the night of the killing were “evidence of planning.”
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