A state district judge on Thursday directed a verdict in favor of a juvenile accused of first-degree murder – a ruling rare in any criminal proceeding and especially unusual in a homicide.
But the defense says prosecutors were wrong to proceed with the homicide charges at all, since a codefendant had admitted firing the fatal round from a semiautomatic.
Donavon Young, who was cleared of the charges by the court ruling, was the third defendant to go before 2nd Judicial District Judge Charles Brown in a case with its origins at a “plaid party,” at which guests were asked to dress in something plaid, and at which drugs, alcohol and guns proved a lethal mix.
Young, now 18, was 17 at the time of the party in an apartment where a young woman lived near Tramway and Indian School in December 2014.
Young arrived with his cousin, Juan Martinez, and Ryan Baca. Andrew Junqueira, 22, was shot and killed after a struggle on a bed, possibly over whether or not drugs purchased by a partygoer were fake.
Young was the only defendant to go to trial.
Baca, 19 at the time of the incident, entered a no contest plea before Brown to assault with intent to commit a violent felony, tampering with evidence, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and conspiracy to commit murder. The agreement set a sentencing range between five and 16½ years, and did not contain a requirement to testify at trial.
Then Martinez, 20, entered a guilty plea on Friday in which he said he was the shooter.
“Yes, I did kill Andrew. But I didn’t mean to kill him. I didn’t kill him out of anger. I walked into that room and, yes, I did have a firearm and it was loaded, and it just – everything happened so fast,” Martinez said, according to a transcript of the proceeding. “Really, I did it out of a reaction. I didn’t plan on killing him.”
In the signed plea agreement, he said he was guilty of second-degree murder, assault with intent to commit a violent felony, tampering with evidence and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and also admitted two prior convictions that made him a habitual offender. His agreed-upon sentence was 12 years and he would be required to testify if suboenaed.
He was still in a courthouse holding cell waiting to be called when Brown directed the verdict.
Kari Morrissey, Young’s attorney, said that Martinez’s plea was sufficient evidence that prosecutors should not have proceeded against her client on the first-degree murder charge and its related theories. Before trial began this week, prosecutors Mark Probasco and Sean Sullivan dropped all charges except homicide. Young already had pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, possessing a gun when he was 17.
She filed a motion Monday asking Brown to bar prosecutors from identifying her client as Junqueira’s shooter, since Martinez had not only admitted in court that he was the shooter, but also had given an interview to the defense afterward.
Morrissey continued to press Brown, following up trial testimony favorable to her client with a request for a directed verdict.
Brown granted it on Thursday.
Morrissey said prosecutors should not have gone ahead on the homicide theory – all three defendants had been charged as principals in the crime – once they knew Martinez was the shooter.
“They elicited testimony they knew to be false,” she said.
The District Attorney’s Office did not have a comment late Thursday.
But, as Brown observed in making his ruling, defendants have many reasons for making pleas and the state had the right to prosecute Young. The question was whether there was enough evidence that Young had shot Junqueira and Brown concluded there was not.