The crime scene photos were enough to make jurors blanch: a red-haired woman’s head and hands tucked into an unzipped duffel bag.
But jurors in the murder trial of Jason Victor Bautista, who is accused of choking and dismembering his mother two years ago, seemed just as repulsed by the defendant’s testimony that his mother routinely pummeled him with her fists, beat him with a hockey stick and held him at knifepoint for hours because he got a B in a high school class.
The trial, playing out in a Santa Ana courtroom, is one of hundreds in recent years in which jurors must decide whether a child is a murderer or a victim of a poisoned family life.
In Bautista’s case, he contends that when his mother lunged at him with “her favorite knife” during one of her rages, he tackled her to save his own life and accidentally killed her when he pushed and held her face into the carpet of their Riverside apartment.
Although such self-defense and prior-abuse defenses have swayed juries, Bautista was 20 years old when he killed his mother in 2003, and experts say jurors may conclude that as an adult, he had less-lethal options to resolve his pent-up anger.
“Using that sort of excuse for an adult always begs the question, ‘You may have been abused, but what’s stopping you from walking away?’ ” said Adam Wiesman, a USC psychiatry professor and expert on parricide.
The trial of the Menendez brothers a decade ago marked the highest-profile failure of the “battered-child” tactic, with Lyle and Erik Menendez sentenced to life in prison for life without parole after shooting their parents to death. Lyle was 21 and Erik in 18 when they killed their parents in 1989. The brothers alleged they’d been tormented by an abusive father.
In a handful of states, including Texas and Washington, if a child kills a parent who brutalized him or her, a jury may find it justifiable. But some prosecutors criticize such laws, saying they sanction murder.
“You can’t entrust people to make these types of decisions on their own,” then-Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Pamela Bozanich, the lead prosecutor in the Menendez case, told The Times in 1993 before the trial started. “That’s what the laws are for.”
Without commenting on Bautista’s case, a Portland, Ore., lawyer who had defended hundreds of parricide defendants, said age should not be a factor in determining what options an abused child actually had.
The emotional age of the child should also play a role, said Kathleen Heide, professor of criminology at the University of South Florida and author of “Why Kids Kill Parents.” Adolescence can extend into a person’s early 20s, she said, or perhaps even longer if abuse has stunted psychological growth.
“They can be developmentally stalled,” agreed Dr. Michael Arambula, a San Antonio forensic psychiatrist. “Just because someone is 20 doesn’t mean they really act or think that age.”
Bautista’s defense differs from that of most battered children because he says he killed his mother accidentally during a tussle. Her headless, handless torso was found tossed off Ortega Highway in Orange County. Jurors will start deliberating his fate this week.
Mutilating his mother’s body after her death, even with his explanation that he was inspired by an episode of “The Sopranos,” is a scenario often played out when children kill abusive parents, experts said.
“It’s more than self-defense; it’s overkill,” Arambula said. “It looks like the kid basically just exploded, and years of pent-up rage and anger and things that have been well internalized suddenly came out.”
In one Massachusetts case in 2000, a 16-year-old girl who shoved her mother down a staircase and bludgeoned her with a sledgehammer was sentenced to 10 to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Two Florida brothers, ages 12 and 13, admitted beating their father to death, then setting the house on fire; one was sentenced to seven years in prison, the other to eight years in juvenile hall. An Indiana boy who said he was abused for 17 years hacked his parents to death with an ax and was sentenced to concurrent terms of 30 and 40 years in prison.
Unlike in the Bautista case, younger children who kill their parents often do so when parents are vulnerable, such as sleeping or watching TV, parricide experts said. Those cases can be more difficult to defend because they show planning, a key ingredient for first-degree murder convictions.
In Bautista’s case, the prosecutor believes the self-defense story is a ruse.
Although he said that his mother had threatened him with a knife during the fatal encounter and that she had tried to poke him with her keys, Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Murray pointed out that Bautista didn’t have a scratch on him when he was arrested.
“I was lucky,” Bautista said.
Murray has told jurors that Bautista, who could face life in prison if convicted, had planned for months to kill his mentally ill mother because he was tired of dealing with her.
Bautista’s former co-workers and fellow students at Cal State San Bernardino testified he talked about his poor relationship with his mother and a week before the killing told acquaintances his mother had moved and wouldn’t be around anymore.
While on the stand last week, Bautista said that those statements were “full of lies” and that he never intended to kill his mother. When his attorney asked him if he loved her, Bautista said he did. “I also feared her a lot,” he added.
Beatings had marred his life from childhood, he said, including one incident when his mother struck him with a hockey stick so hard he needed stitches on his head.
When he was 15 and brought home a report card with all A’s and one B, he said, his mother tied him to his bed with cable and held him at knifepoint for four hours. She told him he was ruining her life, Bautista said.
“In her anger modes, she would frequently go for knives,” Bautista said.
She had never stabbed him, Bautista said, but he was fearful that she would kill him on that January night as they wrestled on the living room floor.
“I was in a struggle for my life,” he said.