2 Teen-Agers Are Sentenced in Woods Case : Courts: Mother of youth killed by paint-roller rod storms out of hearing as defendants are condemned to state Youth Authority rather than prison.
In a decision that brought both relief and anger, a judge on Friday sentenced two youths to the California Youth Authority rather than state prison for the second-degree murder of a San Clemente teen-ager who died after being speared through the head with a paint roller.
Hector Penuelas and Julio Perez Bonilla, both 18, showed no visible emotion at the sentence, which followed a tense hearing that included a tearful outburst by the sister of Steve Woods, the 17-year-old victim.
Holding a large, framed picture of her smiling brother and shaking as she walked into a restricted area in front of the judge and the defendants, Shellie Woods told the young men, “This is who you destroyed!”
Woods was in the passenger seat of a friend’s Chevrolet Suburban when a paint-roller rod pierced his skull during a confrontation Oct. 15, 1993, between two groups of young people at Calafia Beach County Park in San Clemente. He died 25 days later, never having regained consciousness.
While citing the senseless nature of the crime, Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey said he chose to send the defendants to the Youth Authority--where generally they cannot be held past age 25--in the hope that they can turn their young lives around.
“The defendants may be in a gang, but they are not hard-core members,” Dickey said. “They are not defendants who are unchangeable, and they have no previous record of violence.”
Dickey said he understood that family and friends want vengeance and a maximum sentence. But in his experience, Dickey said, young defendants sent to state prison can become a greater problem to society when they are eventually paroled.
Dickey said psychological assessments of the young men showed they have learning and language disabilities and would benefit from educational and other programs offered in the California Youth Authority.
“I can’t bring Stephen Woods back,” Dickey said. “Nonetheless, these young men are not predators. . . . They are not criminally sophisticated, and there’s nothing to suggest they’re firmly entrenched in the gang lifestyle.”
Kathy Woods, the victim’s mother, stormed out of the courtroom in disgust as Dickey started giving his reasons for the sentence.
“My thought was, ‘I don’t care what your reasons are,’ ” Kathy Woods said later. “You have just jeopardized other people’s lives.”
“I am so disgusted,” Shellie Woods said outside the courtroom. “My brother didn’t get justice today. . . . They’re getting a rap on the knuckles. And that’s all they’re getting.” Members of the defendants’ families breathed a collective sigh of relief after the judge’s decision was explained to them by Carlos Negrete, their attorney in a wrongful death civil case brought by the Woods family.
“I think the judge understood that these boys are different. They’re not gangsters,” said Penuelas’ father, Cipriano Penuelas. “This was an accident. Yes, it was unfortunate. But my son never intended to go out and kill anyone. He’s not like that.”
Defense attorney Dennis McNerney, who represented Penuelas, said he, too, thought it was a fair sentence. “I think (the judge) was relying on the facts of the case. But I still view this as an involuntary manslaughter case.”
Prosecutor Gary Paer said he respected the judge’s decision, but expressed disappointment that the defendants will not be punished in prison.
“Everyone is feeling sorry for these two juveniles and forgetting that the true focus should be on Steve Woods, who has long been buried,” Paer said.
Friday’s sentencing marked just another chapter in a highly charged case that sent shock waves through San Clemente, a community known for its beaches and as home to the Western White House during Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Outraged residents held rallies and protests to complain about youth violence and gangs. But the tragedy also exposed racial divisions in neighborhoods beside the beaches.
Latino activists complained that race was behind the murder charges, but prosecutors called such accusations “ludicrous” and said the charges and convictions were based on facts, not the race of the victim or defendants.
The two were the first of six defendants to go to trial. A third pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and awaits sentencing, while a fourth young man was recently found guilty by a jury of second-degree murder. Two remaining defendants, including Hector Penuelas’ older brother, await trial.
Although Penuelas and Bonilla were juveniles at the time of the crime, they were tried as adults because of the serious nature of the charges. They faced a possible sentence of 17 years to life in prison on the second-degree murder conviction, plus additional time for conspiracy, assault and acting as members of a gang, which could have required them to serve a minimum 15 years in prison.
Prosecutors were unable to prove that either of the two defendants sentenced Friday had hurled the paint-roller that fatally wounded the San Clemente High School senior.
But Judge Dickey, in finding them guilty after a non-jury trial in August, said the young men are as guilty as the actual killer.
The judge pronounced his sentence after emotional testimony from Woods’ family and friends.
“That night just feels like a bad dream that I am still trying to wake up from,” said Christi Malberg, who held a stricken Woods in her arms during the drive to the hospital. “But I know that will never happen, and it scares me.”
Prior to the hearing, Penuelas’ father said it was his and his wife’s hope that their son would receive a fair sentence.
Bonilla’s mother, Maria, said she was pleased that her son may find help in a youth authority program rather than be incarcerated in state prison.
“My son is not a murderer,” she said. “You have to understand that he’s a good boy. He isn’t like some other boys. At home, when we would tell him to stay at home, he minded us, he paid attention.”
In conversations between the defendant and his parents, he has expressed sorrow for his role in the Woods incident, she said.
“He told us he didn’t want to start any problems for us and for the Woods family,” she said. “He cries about this. He’s very sorry for what happened and the problems that it’s caused for us and for the Woods family.”
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