A state appeals court Tuesday upheld a young woman’s conviction for her involvement as a 16-year-old in the beating death of a USC graduate student from China, but ordered the case against her to be sent back to the trial court for re-sentencing.
The three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected Alejandra Guerrero’s contention that there was insufficient evidence to support the jury’s special circumstance finding of murder during the commission of an attempted robbery involving the July 24, 2014, attack on Xinran Ji.
“Contrary to Guerrero’s contention, the record contains ample evidence of her reckless indifference to human life sufficient to support the jury’s special circumstance finding,” Presiding Justice Dennis M. Perluss wrote on behalf of the panel.
Guerrero was one of four young people convicted in connection with the attack.
The appellate court justices noted that Guerrero — armed with a wrench — got out of the car to confont Ji and that she saw co-defendant Alberto Ochoa “violently hit Ji with the bat” and that she chased him down and hit him with the wrench while another young man, Andrew Garcia, beat him in the head with a baseball bat.
“The group left the scene as Ji lay covered in blood with a fractured skull,” the justices noted in the 28-page ruling. “Ji managed to get up and return to his nearby apartment, where he died a short time later from his head wounds. The attack was captured on surveillance cameras and played for the jury.”
The appellate court panel noted that “despite all this violence,” it was only when co-defendant Jonathan Del Carmen — the getaway driver — pulled the car away that “Guerrero stopped her attack on Ji and returned to the car, not to go home or to call for help, but to commit additional robberies, again armed with a deadly weapon.”
After the attack on the 24-year-old electrical engineering student, the group drove to Dockweiler Beach, where three of the defendants encountered a man and woman and demanded the couple’s possessions, the panel noted. They were arrested soon afterward.
Guerrero was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but the appellate court panel ordered Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli to consider “youth-related mitigating factors” — the same ruling it had made last month in the case of Ochoa, who was 17 at the time of the attack.
Meanwhile, in a separate ruling last month, the appellate court panel ordered the case against Del Carmen — who was 19 at the time of the crime — to be sent back to the lower court for further proceedings in which the judge may be asked to throw out Del Carmen’s second-degree murder conviction.
The appellate court panel noted in that ruling that Del Carmen had requested that the judge be directed to immediately vacate his second-degree murder conviction stemming from his guilty plea and to re-sentence him given a change in state law, which eliminated the natural and probable consequences doctrine relating to murder. The judge had agreed with the prosecution’s contention that the change is unconstitutional.
“Although the court stated `it would seemingly appear’ Del Carmen was entitled to relief, that observation falls short of the finding required by the statute for issuance of an order to show cause,” the appellate court panel noted.
“Moreover, contrary to Del Carmen’s truncated view of the process, after an order to show cause issues, absent a stipulation that he is eligible to have his murder conviction vacated and should be re-sentenced … the court must hold an evidentiary hearing to determine whether to vacate the murder conviction and to re-sentence Del Carmen.”
The conviction of the final defendant — Andrew Garcia — was upheld in a May 2019 ruling, with the California Supreme Court refusing to hear the case against him last August. He was 18 at the time of the crime.
Deputy District Attorney John McKinney told jurors the victim was targeted because his assailants thought he was an “easy target” who was walking alone in the dark.
Ji’s killing occurred two years after two other USC graduate students from China were shot to death during an April 2012 robbery as they sat in a car that was double-parked on a street near the USC campus.
Two men — Javier Bolden and Bryan Barnes — were convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the killings of Ying Wu and Ming Qu, who were both 23.