The prosecution says he is a coldblooded killer who maliciously burned a woman alive.
The defense said he is an innocent man who has been maligned by a drug addled acquaintance.
In which direction the scales of justice will tip is now the decision of 12 Merced County jurors, as they decide the fate of Luis Valencia.
Valencia, 27, is facing charges of first degree murder with the special circumstances of kidnapping, torture, and mayhem. He also has one additional count of kidnapping lodged against him. Valencia is being tried separately from three other defendants facing the same charges. Omar Cebrero, Urbano Ortega, and Alvaro Reyes are awaiting trial.
The case against Valencia arises from events that transpired the night of Oct. 24, 2007 that led to the death of Rosa Avina, 27, of Livingston.
Avina was kidnapped from a Turlock home during a phony home invasion. She was bound, gagged, blindfolded and placed into the trunk of a Pontiac Grand Am. She was driven to a Delhi home, where five men discussed how they could “rough up” Avina because she allegedly took a pound of marijuana from one of the men.
Still in the trunk of the car, Avina was driven to an orchard in Ballico, where she was thrown into the hull of an abandoned boat. She was doused with gasoline and then set on fire when one of the suspects flicked a lit match at her.
Avina was burned over the majority of her body, but was able to walk to a farmhouse nearly a mile away in an effort to get help. She was air lifted to a burn unit in the Bay Area and died from her injuries two days later.
According to testimony from the pathologist assigned to the case, Avina had actually inhaled some of the flames into her lungs and had no chance of survival.
The Merced County District Attorney’s Office contends Valencia was an integral member in the planning and carrying out of Avina’s murder. They claim it was Valencia who first had the idea to set her on fire.
Over the course of the four days of testimony, jurors were presented with physical evidence such as shoe prints, discarded pieces of tape, zip ties, and a soda bottle used to hold the gasoline that the prosecution says ties Valencia to Avina’s murder. They also heard testimony about a ring last seen in Avina’s possession. She was supposed to pawn the ring with a friend and the friend testified Avina had the ring with her the night she was killed.
Taped jailhouse conversations between Valencia and his wife recorded Valencia giving instructions to his wife to retrieve a ring that he quickly buried at the Delhi residence just before his arrest.
Defense attorney David Capron downplayed the evidence during his closing arguments, stating none of it tied Valencia to the crime scene.
In his rebuttal, Deputy District Attorney Steven Slocum conceded there was no physical evidence like fingerprints or DNA, but pointed to the importance of the ring, which was eventually recovered from Valencia’s wife.
“You have something better,” Slocum said to the jury in reference to the evidence, “you have a ring that came from Rosa herself.”
The prosecution presented testimony from experts, detectives, and a jailhouse informant, but their star witness was Luis Vazquez, an accomplice in the kidnapping.
Vazquez was arrested at the onset of the investigation and eventually pled guilty to kidnapping and burglary. As part of his plea deal Vazquez was sentenced to nine years and four months and agreed to testify for the prosecution. During his testimony he stated Valencia helped with the kidnapping and told him after the fact that he was the one to pour the gas on Avina.
Capron countered that the jury should not give much credence to Vazquez’s testimony because he was in the midst of a methamphetamine binder when the attack happened and that he was attempting to minimize his own culpability in Avina’s death.
Vazquez has maintained he was not present when Avina was set on fire, but did get the gas at Valencia’s request.
Slocum tried to build Vazquez’s credibility by posing a question to the jurors.
“If he [Vazquez] was going to lie, why would he put himself as the person who goes and gets the gas,” Slocum asked.
“This case is like a puzzle with lots of little pieces and when you put them all together, they all match up,” Slocum said.
The jury went into deliberation for a little over an hour Friday then left for the holiday weekend. They are scheduled to return Tuesday morning and resume deliberations.
To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.