A state appellate court panel Wednesday upheld a man’s conviction for gunning down a former Santa Monica High School football player after a brief run-in near a liquor store.
Jurors found Sherwin Mendoza Espinosa guilty in August 2018 of second-degree murder for the Feb. 26, 2017, slaying of Juan Castillo.
The jury acquitted Espinosa of the more serious charge of first-degree murder.
The three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal found that “a reasonable jury could have concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant did not actually believe Castillo posed a threat of death or great bodily injury to defendant.”
“According to defendant, the shooting was `unintentional’ and caused by a `flinch’ rather than any overwhelming emotion. And after the shooting, defendant returned to the bar he had previously been at with his friends, and continued drinking and socializing. Under these circumstances, the trial court had no duty to give a lesser included offense instruction on heat of passion manslaughter,” the panel found in its 22-page ruling.
Castillo — who graduated from Santa Monica High School in 2016 — was shot to death about 12:45 a.m. in the 2100 block of Pico Boulevard. The 18-year-old victim’s body was found just after 5 that morning about a mile away in the 1300 block of 16th Street, near the UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center.
Santa Monica police Officer Steve Salandez told jurors that he went to the scene and found that the victim had a Santa Monica school identification card with Castillo’s name.
A friend who was with Castillo in the car at the time of the shooting panicked, drove away and left the victim’s body at the second location, according to Deputy District Attorney Keri Modder.
The prosecutor — who said there had been a brief run-in between Espinosa and the victim before the shooting — credited “really good detective work” by Santa Monica police. Investigators used video taken from cameras on passing city buses and nearby surveillance cameras to track down the car in which the victim was shot, along with the vehicle driven by Espinosa, Modder said.
Espinosa, who is now 45, was arrested in May 2017 and is serving a 40-year-to-life term in state prison.
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