One was a navy veteran, cutting hair and training to be a firefighter while planning a life together with his girlfriend of six years. The other, a high school graduate and father of one, had completed two semesters at City College and was working full-time to support his girlfriend and son.
The consequences of their fateful encounter on May 15, 2011 — when Vincent Velasquez, 26, was killed and Benjamin Vargas, 20, was arrested for his death and ultimately convicted of voluntary manslaughter — were on full display Monday at Vargas’s sentencing hearing, as emotional statements and pleas were made to Judge George Eskin on behalf of both young men.
That night, according to testimony, Vargas was walking with his girlfriend in Isla Vista when Velasquez — who was drunk — asked him, “What’s up?” Vargas responded, “Homie, you don’t know me. Don’t say ‘what’s up’ to me.” The encounter quickly escalated. Velasquez punched Vargas, who was knocked to the ground, and a struggle ensued. Witness testimony indicated the bigger, stronger Velasquez quickly gained the upper hand, with his friend Ray Velez cheering him on. But the tide turned, and it wasn’t long before Velasquez was bloody and lying on the ground. Defense attorney Ron Bamieh argued vigorously that Velasquez was the aggressor and Vargas acted out of self-defense.
Velasquez wouldn’t make it through the night. He had been stabbed 16 times and suffered two fatal wounds — one to the neck and one to the heart. Vargas, meanwhile, has spent the last 14 months in County Jail. And after Monday morning’s sentencing, he will spend the next few years in state prison, after Eskin sentenced him to a six-year term there.
Vanessa Solis, Velasquez’s girlfriend, said everyday events — from hearing songs, to people asking questions, to driving by nostalgic places — serve as constant reminders that her loved one is gone. “I’m experiencing my first holidays, birthdays, and anniversary without Vincent,” she told the judge. Velasquez was working to eliminate biases against Latinos in the legal profession, she said. “We will never hear his laugh, give him a hug, or, in my case, give him a kiss ever again,” she said.
Velez, one of Velasquez’s closest friends, expressed regret for encouraging the fight, rather than stepping in to stop it. “May 15, 2011, was the worst day of my life,” Velez said. “I drove him, bleeding to death, in my car.” And Eddie Velasquez, Vincent’s younger half-brother, just celebrated his 18th birthday this Sunday. “Every year my brother would at least call me to say ‘happy birthday,’” he said. “This year he could never do that.”
Vargas, who sat in court looking forward throughout the proceedings, wrote a letter to the judge in which he expressed his remorse for what had happened. Maria Vargas, his sister, called her brother a good man who works hard for his family. “He’s always been a dedicated father,” she said. “He is gentle with his son.”
Karen Medina, his girlfriend and the mother of his child, said her son, if he were old enough to be there, would tell the judge how important his father is in his life. “He would tell you he knows his father is a hard worker and his dad always wanted the best for him,” she said. “His goals were to provide for us and ensure our family stayed together.”
More than 100 people submitted letters in support of both the victim and defendant.
After reading the letters, and after hearing the impassioned words of family and friends, Eskin read his decision aloud to the filled courtroom. The maximum sentence Vargas could have received is 11 years, while the six-year sentence is the middle term. He received credit for the more than one year he spent in County Jail.
Prosecutor Hans Almgren said in documents filed with the court that “this case calls for a sentence which protects society, punishes the defendant, deters others from criminal conduct by demonstrating its consequences and prevents the defendant from committing new crimes by isolating him for the period of incarceration of 11 years.”
Aggravating factors, Almgren explained, include that the killing involved “[a] high degree of cruelty, viciousness, or callousness,” and that Velasquez was vulnerable because he had been drinking and did not have a weapon.
Bamieh, meanwhile, said Vargas was working and living a responsible life prior to the incident. “He was not living a worthless or insignificant life when this incident occurred,” Bamieh wrote. “He was contributing to society by working and raising his son in a responsible manner.”
Bamieh said that by finding Vargas guilty of voluntary manslaughter, the jury must have adopted the legal theory of imperfect self-defense, that is, self-defense was necessary, but unreasonable. This can reduce a charge from murder to manslaughter. While some jurors hinted to attorneys how they reached their conclusion, it isn’t known how each juror came to rest on voluntary manslaughter.
Bamieh vigorously argued it was a case of self-defense, pointing out Velasquez threw the first punch and for a time was winning the brawl between the two. With friend Velez egging him on, Velasquez had the upper hand, Bamieh said, and Vargas had a reasonable fear of great bodily injury or even death.
Bamieh said he never saw this case as one of murder but had offered to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter, an offer he said Almgren rejected. Almgren wouldn’t comment on the bargaining process but did say he thought this was a murder case, noting the 16 total stab wounds Velasquez received.
Almgren argued Vargas entered the fight against a bigger, stronger man because Vargas knew he had a knife with him. In court, he told Eskin, “Sixteen stab wounds is not a trivial matter at all.” Velasquez was also in a vulnerable position because he had been drinking, Almgren said. But, “you have to respect the jury’s verdict,” Almgren said in an interview after the decision was handed down. “And you have to respect the judge’s judgment. I thought we had a strong case for second-degree murder.”
At the end of the trial, the judge had concluded the jury would not be able to consider first-degree murder in its deliberations, finding that no rational trier of fact could find Vargas guilty of first-degree murder, which requires premeditation and deliberation.
It was another hiccup for Almgren in what proved to be a complicated and emotional case. In October, a Grand Jury indicted Maria Vargas and Karen Medina as accessories to the homicide, as authorities accused Medina of assaulting Velasquez during the attack, and Vargas was accused of driving the car away from the crime scene. They spent eight days in jail before posting bail.
But in March, the charges against both women were dismissed after Eskin concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to support the indictments. He said that “a properly informed grand jury would have declined to find probable cause to indict” Maria Vargas and that the “cumulative effect of errors and omissions in the conduct of the grand jury proceedings … created substantial prejudice” to Medina’s right to due process. Bamieh said he believed Almgren pursued the indictments to keep the two women — key witnesses for the defense — from testifying.
At Benjamin Vargas’s sentencing hearing, the judge again called out the authorities, taking the time to note his disappointment with the probation officer’s report — usually done in preparation for sentencing to help inform the judge’s decision — calling it “so biased against the defendant that the Court could not rely on the information, the analysis or the recommendation presented.” Eskin said the bias of the report, wherein the officer recommended the upper term of 11 years, was palpable.
Vargas was eligible to be sentenced to probation, but Eskin said neither probation nor the low prison term of three years were appropriate, noting the fact that Vargas had gone to Isla Vista armed with a knife. Eskin said that “there was a point in time during the fight, as Benjamin inflicted the majority of knife wounds to Vincent’s back, that despite the frenzy of the situation, he could have and should have stopped.”
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The original version of this story was replaced July 18, 2012 with a more in-depth report on Benjamin Vargas's case and sentencing.