Athlete Cleared in Death of Student

Times Staff Writers

A former Banning High School football player was cleared Monday of charges that he killed a fellow student, who died after the two fought in a campus parking lot.

A Juvenile Court judge in Compton ruled that charges against Brandon Souder, 18, were unfounded and that "the people did not prove the burden of the case."

Souder was accused of killing Fabian Espinoza, 18, last February.

Espinoza had been returning textbooks to the Banning High student bookstore. Souder was leaving football practice. As Souder and three friends pulled out of the parking lot, a videotape accidentally left on the car's roof fell off. Souder, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound-plus defensive lineman on the Wilmington high school's football team, asked Espinoza, who was 5 feet 9 and 140 pounds, to pick it up since he was standing nearby.

Espinoza refused, and they argued. Souder got out, approached Espinoza and put his arm around him. Souder said he did this in a congenial way, but Deputy Dist. Atty. Tony Aguilar argued that Souder did so aggressively.

Souder said that Espinoza "just elbowed me, then he pushed me. Then I pushed him and he came back swinging."

Accounts of who hit who first are unclear. But punches were thrown, and at some point, Espinoza was hit and fell, the back of his head striking the concrete.

"Brandon wrestled Fabian to the ground," claimed Souder's attorney, Bill Bartz.

After the two were separated, Espinoza went home and told his mother he had a headache. He went to bed that night and was dead in the morning.

On Monday, when Judge Charles Q. Clay III announced his verdict on all charges, the most serious of which was second-degree murder, Espinoza's sister, Erika, ran out of the courtroom.

Espinoza's mother, Charlene Remark, said she also was distraught. "It crushed me again," she said. "It was like Fabian was murdered all over again."

Prosecutor Aguilar said, "We're very devastated and disappointed. There was substantial evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt."

In court, Remark had asked the judge if she could address Souder. The judge refused.

Afterward in the hallway, Remark approached Souder and his family, and he apologized for all that had happened, she said.

"I told Brandon that I knew you didn't intentionally mean to kill Fabian," Remark said. "But because of your incapability of controlling yourself, my son is dead and it's destroyed my life and our family."

Souder, however, said later in his attorney's office that the scene in the hallway had been more confrontational.

"I was trying to tell her I'm sorry for this whole situation," Souder said. "She just started to go off on me."

It had been difficult, he said, seeing Remark in court during the two-week Juvenile Court proceeding.

"It's OK, Brandon," his mother, Junetta Knight, comforted. "It's over. It's over."

Souder has graduated from Banning and attends community college. He plans to transfer to a university in the fall and to major in business, he said.

"To this day, right now, I still can't believe everything that's happened," Souder said. He said he had been confident the judge would rule in his favor.

"I knew I didn't do anything wrong," he said. But in the last year, "It's been kind of hard to concentrate in school." Now, he said, he plans to "just finish up with school."

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