A state appeals court panel has ordered a new sentencing hearing for a young woman who was convicted in connection with the beating death of a USC graduate student from China during a robbery near the campus.
The three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal noted in its ruling Monday that the new hearing for Alejandra Guerrero is to be done in her presence — unlike one done in February 2021 — and conducted by a judge other than Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli, who presided over the trial and subsequently refused to reduce her prison sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
Guerrero, now 23, was 16 at the time of the July 24, 2014, attack on Xinran Ji. She was convicted along with Alberto Ochoa, who was 17 at the time, and Andrew Garcia, who was 18.
At a hearing a year ago, the judge noted that he had no choice but to redesignate the conviction of a fourth defendant, Jonathan Del Carmen, to attempted robbery as a result of a recent change in state law. Del Carmen, who was 19 at the time, had pleaded no contest to second-degree murder for being the getaway driver in the attack on Ji, who was beaten with a wrench and a baseball bat.
Deputy District Attorney John McKinney said last year there was insufficient evidence to prove reckless indifference to human life on Del Carmen’s part to allow his murder conviction to stand.
The appellate court panel’s latest ruling noted that it had ordered the case against Guerrero to be sent back to the trial court in September 2020 for a new sentencing hearing so the court could satisfy its statutory obligation to consider youth-related mitigating factors before exercising its sentencing discretion.
“The court overruled the objection of Guerrero’s counsel that Guerrero had a right to be present at the hearing and, again, did not consider youth-related factors before imposing a sentence of life without parole,” the panel found in its latest ruling. “In the interests of justice and to ensure Guerrero receives a fair and unbiased hearing, further proceedings in this matter are to be held before a trial judge other than the judge who previously presided over the case.”
In its September 2020 ruling, the same three-justice panel rejected Guerrero’s contention there was insufficient evidence to support the jury’s special circumstance finding of murder during the commission of an attempted robbery.
The appellate court justices noted in that ruling that Guerrero — armed with a wrench — got out of the car to confront Ji and that she saw co-defendant Ochoa “violently hit Ji with the bat” and that she chased him down and hit him with the wrench while 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 their 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 Del Carmen 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.
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 — Bryan Barnes and Javier Bolden — 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. Bolden is now challenging his conviction as a result of a change in state law that affects defendants in some murder cases.