Orange County Superior Court. Photo by John Schreiber
Orange County Superior Court. Photo by John Schreiber

A San Clemente motel dweller whose rape conviction and life sentence was reversed on appeal pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was given six years behind bars, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

Ricky Venegas, 43, admitted assault with force likely to commit great bodily injury in a plea bargain with prosecutors, according to Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker.

Venegas has a prior strike of dissuading a witness in an unrelated case, which factored into his punishment. He waived his good conduct credits, so he will remain behind bars until the end of November, according to officials.

Venegas was convicted after a jury trial in May 2013. He filed a motion for a new trial in August of that year. The motion alleged juror misconduct because at least two panelists during deliberations discussed why the defendant did not testify during his trial.

Three days after Venegas was convicted, a juror called the defendant’s attorney asking to discuss the case, according to a Fourth District Court of Appeal ruling in June 2015.

Venegas insisted to investigators he had consensual sex with the victim.

Orange County Superior Court Judge M. Marc Kelly, who presided over the trial, ruled in January 2014 there was misconduct, but that it did not affect the defendant’s right to a fair trial.

Kelly came under fire in April 2015 when, in a separate case, he deviated from a mandated 25-year-to-life sentence and sent Kevin Jonas Rojano-Nieto to prison for 10 years for sexually assaulting a 3-year-old female relative.

A move to recall Kelly failed last year when organizers could not get enough signatures to put the question to voters in the June presidential primary. Prosecutors have appealed Kelly’s ruling.

The appellate justices pointed out that Kelly admonished the Venegas case jurors during questioning that they had a right not to testify about the alleged misconduct, prompting one juror to say he felt he was being put “on the spot.”

The jurors were not sworn in during the questioning, the justices noted. And one juror who was not admonished he could avoid testifying more freely discussed the misconduct, according to the ruling.

“I mean you have to agree that there was misconduct,” Kelly said in his Jan. 17, 2014, ruling denying a new trial. “Whether or not it rises to a level of prejudicial misconduct is my focus.”

The justices faulted Kelly for not having the jurors testify under oath. They also criticized Kelly for admonishing the jurors they had a right not to testify, saying it had a “chilling effect” on them.

“In essence, the court reminded the jurors what the law required and then asked them if they had violated the law,” the justices’ ruling states.

The victim in the case had fallen on hard times and was living out of a motel in San Clemente when she was attacked on Nov. 27, 2010.

Venegas, who was also living out of the motel, assaulted her in her room, Walker said.

Walker, who was the prosecutor in the first trial, said she made the plea bargain offer because “there was a change in the status of the evidence.”

Investigators looked further into the case based on the new evidence, Walker said, declining to provide more details.

The plea deal was also a way to let the victim, who was OK with the disposition of the case, to avoid testifying again, Walker said.

“Based on the change in evidence, this was the best resolution,” Walker said. “I didn’t believe there was the ability to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt anymore.”

There’s a protective order in place that bars Venegas from contacting the victim, Walker said.

–City News Service 

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