Garcia gets conviction lowered

A man convicted of slaying a 16-year-old girl in a Costa Mesa park nearly 10 years ago will see his sentence reduced, after an appellate court downgraded his conviction from first- to second-degree murder.

Victor Manuel Garcia, 28, will now have his prison sentence reduced from 25 years to life to 15 years to life, his Orange-based attorney, Kristin A. Erickson, said in a phone interview Wednesday night.

"I'm happy that my client will receive the opportunity for release sooner rather than later," Erickson told the Daily Pilot.

In September 2009, Orange County Superior Court Judge William R. Froeberg, sentenced Garcia on a first-degree murder charge in the September 2001 killing of Ceceline Godsoe in Fairview Park. Garcia was 17 at the time of the killing but was tried as an adult. The case will go back to Froeberg for Garcia's resentencing, Erickson said.

Her client had appealed Froeberg's ruling and was hoping the three-judge panel from the Fourth Appellate District's Third Division would reduce the conviction to manslaughter. A second-degree murder conviction means Garcia will have to appear before a parole board before being released from prison, and a manslaughter conviction doesn't carry such a requirement.

The appellate panel issued its ruling Monday.

"The evidence is insufficient to support a conviction of first-degree murder, but sufficient for a finding of implied malice for a conviction of second-degree murder," the appellate court ruled with all three judges concurring.

On the night of Sept. 20, 2001, Garcia and a few of his friends went to Fairview Park to celebrate the birth of his daughter, according to court documents. There he met Ceceline, and the two walked off a path together.

During the walk, prosecutors said, Garcia severely kicked and punched the girl, leaving her to die in the park.

In his appeal, Garcia contended that there wasn't enough evidence that the killing was premeditated and deliberate to support the first-degree murder conviction. In arguing that the panel affirm Froeberg's ruling, Matt Murphy of the Orange County district attorney's office pointed to what he said was Garcia's deliberate intent to drag the victim's injured body off the path to a hidden place, where she would later die of asphyxiation.

"What gets this case to a first-[degree murder] and what makes this case so bad is that after that beating she could still be saved," Murphy told the appellate panel, according to a copy of its decision. "And he made a coldblooded decision to drag her down the trail. That's what makes it a first. It's the decision."

Garcia fled to Mexico after Ceceline's slaying, and was extradited to the United States in 2004.

In their decision to reduce the degree of the murder conviction, the appellate court said they did not see sufficient evidence to prove that Garcia's actions were meticulously thought out.

"The evidence is insufficient to demonstrate defendant reflected, carefully weighed the considerations and planned to hide her and let her die without aid," the court said in its ruling.

"While that very well might be what happened, a rational jury could not reasonably draw that conclusion without speculating. Under the circumstances … we find there is insufficient evidence to support a conviction for first-degree murder."

—Imran Vittachi also contributed to this report.

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