Zavala guilty of murder, jury says

Facing a life sentence in prison, sanity phase of trial set to get under way.

February 5, 2010 

A "mean, self-centered, jealous killer" who displayed a cold-blooded "readiness to do evil."

That's how Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Bacciarini described Jose Zavala this week, during closing arguments in the 31-year-old Atwater resident's murder trial.

Jurors on Thursday unanimously agreed with that assessment, finding Zavala guilty of first-degree murder in the December 2007 killing of his ex-girlfriend, Jennifer Hernandez.

Wearing translator's headphones and a beige suit, Zavala looked briefly toward the ceiling and was expressionless as a court clerk read the verdict reached by the jury of 10 men and two women. Jurors also found Zavala guilty on two felony counts of illegally possessing a firearm, along with an enhancement for causing great bodily injury with a firearm.

Jurors found Zavala not guilty on a misdemeanor count of disobeying a court order.

Zavala's attorneys, Paul Lyon and Christopher Loethen, had no comment after the verdict was read.

Bacciarini said jurors made the right decision, saying the evidence pointing to Zavala's guilt was overwhelming.

Prosecutors believe Zavala showed up at Hernandez's 3104 Denver Ave. apartment the morning of Dec. 3, 2007, where he first watched the victim walk her 9-year-old daughter to a school bus stop. After Zavala went to the apartment to confront Hernandez, she informed him of a new boyfriend in her life -- and that they had been intimate.

Spurned and enraged, Zavala walked across Olive Avenue to a nearby Save Mart parking lot, where he retrieved a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson five-shot revolver from his car. He returned to the apartment and walked the 2-year-old son he'd fathered with Hernandez outside.

Zavala re-entered the apartment, and at point-blank range fired up to four shots at Hernandez. Amid a collection of baby diapers and toys, she slumped over onto the floor and died, one gunshot wound to the back of the head, another in her back. When police arrived at the scene later that day, a detective found her 2-year-old son seated on the floor, watching television, as Hernandez's body lay just a few feet away.

On the day of the shooting, Zavala was found by Merced County sheriff's deputies on a canal bank in Stevinson, pointing a gun to his head. After Zavala put the gun down, he told deputies that he'd shot his girlfriend -- and provided her address.

"This man is a poster child for what the law calls moral turpitude," said Bacciarini, motioning toward Zavala during closing arguments.

Bacciarini also remarked during closing arguments about his years as a school music teacher, and how he learned during his career that people are generally good and well-meaning. He said Zavala, however, is the complete opposite. "This was evil. I don't think there's any way around that," he said.

Zavala's defense argued during trial that he didn't intend to kill Hernandez after arriving at her apartment, saying the crime was manslaughter, not murder. Jurors also heard from Dr. Melissa Piasecki, a University of Nevada School of Medicine psychiatrist, who said Zavala had used illegal drugs since age 13. Piasecki said the drugs may have adversely affected Zavala's brain development, possibly triggering impulses of anger.

During closing arguments, Lyon also attacked the police investigation into the crime as "guesswork," saying little is known about how Zavala and Hernandez were positioned inside the apartment when the shooting happened. "The facts are so sketchy, you can't use them to presume guilt," Lyon said.

Lyon also showed jurors a video of how Zavala reacted inside a police interrogation room, after he'd asked about Hernandez's condition -- and was informed by Detective Rodney Court that she was dead. Zavala uttered some garbled words, and placed his head down on the table for several minutes.

Zavala's reaction, Lyon said, wasn't that of a person who'd intentionally killed someone.

Zavala entered a dual plea to the homicide charges -- not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity. Now that he's been found guilty of the criminal charges, a second phase of the jury trial will begin Monday to determine whether he was sane when he killed Hernandez.

Zavala faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.