The California Supreme Court declined Wednesday to review the case of a man convicted of first-degree murder for repeatedly stabbing a fellow passenger in the head with a knife in a random attack aboard a Montebello Public Transit bus.
Manuel Ortiz Jr., now 30, is serving a 26-year-to-life state prison sentence for the April 9, 2018, attack on Austin Angelo Zavala, who died of his injuries about two months later.
Ortiz, who lived in Montebello, was initially charged with attempted murder and aggravated mayhem, but was subsequently charged with murder after the 22-year-old college student’s death.
In a Feb. 4 ruling, a three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected the defense’s contention that the trial court erred in admitting unduly confusing DNA evidence and allowing a Los Angeles County sheriff’s detective to identify Ortiz. as the person seen in surveillance videos that were played for the jury.
“Although the surveillance video in this case was unusually clear, defendant was wearing a cap and sunglasses that helped obscure his face,” the appellate court panel noted in its 13-page ruling. “More importantly, defendant’s appearance had changed in the 15 months between the stabbing and his trial. Since defendant had been in custody, his complexion was far lighter than it had been. He’d also shaved off his beard, cut his hair and gained weight.”
The panel noted that several fellow passengers later identified Ortiz as the assailant from “six-pack photo arrays,” that DNA samples recovered from a blue bag and its contents that were left aboard the bus contained DNA from a mixture of individuals, including the defendant, and that fingerprints from a toothpaste box inside the bag matched Ortiz’s fingerprints.
In the prosecution’s closing argument, Deputy District Attorney Marlene Martinez called the attack unprovoked and told jurors that Zavala “had no idea what was coming to him.”
Zavala was talking on his cell phone when Ortiz walked up, stabbed him in the head, pulled the knife out and then did the same thing at least three more times, the prosecutor said.
“Austin Zavala was sitting on a bus on his way to college … when the human being at the end of this table committed this cowardly act,” Martinez told the jury. “He left Austin Zavala in a hospital for two months suffering.”
The prosecutor didn’t offer a theory for why Ortiz attacked an apparent stranger shortly after boarding at an East Los Angeles stop at Whittier Boulevard and Gerhart Avenue.
“We don’t have to prove motive,” the prosecutor said. “He could very well have a motive in his head and we just don’t know it.”
Ortiz’s trial attorney, Kimberly Greene, argued the prosecution case was built on circumstantial evidence not strong enough to overcome reasonable doubt. No murder weapon was offered at trial and the DNA came from a Gatorade bottle that could have been recycled and picked up by anyone, Greene said.
“They want to pick and choose and cherry pick” the evidence, Greene told jurors. “It is not your job just to take everything at face value.”
Of the surveillance video, Greene said the killer shown there wasn’t her client, but someone physically similar.
A physical resemblance shouldn’t be enough to convict a man, she told the panel.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Leslie A. Swain — who sentenced Ortiz in November 2019 — said then that it was “rare to see such as crime as this” and called it “heartbreaking.”
The judge agreed to the defense attorney’s request to recommend that Ortiz be housed at a state prison facility that offers mental health services.
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