Killer gets 53 years to life

Family and friends get the chance to confront man who killed ex-girlfriend.

March 24, 2010 

A beautiful woman and caring mother slain in the prime of her life by a malevolent killer.

Family members and friends spoke such words about 27-year-old Jennifer Hernandez on Tuesday, during a somber and emotional sentencing hearing for her killer, Jose Blas Zavala, 32.

Judge Marc Garcia sentenced Zavala to 53 years-to-life behind bars for fatally shooting Hernandez, his former girlfriend and mother of his child, in 2007. He won't be eligible for parole until the year 2060.

Wearing black T-shirts with a smiling photo of Hernandez, dozens of people who knew her sat in the courtroom, most shedding tears and comforting one another with hugs and embraces.

The hearing also offered Hernandez's friends and family members a chance to confront Zavala in court. Mary Norton, the victim's mother, asked Zavala why he murdered her daughter. "How could you do that to the mother of your own child?" Norton wept. "Do you even care?"

Overcome with grief and crying uncontrollably, Norton quickly left the courtroom.

Dressed in a striped orange and white jailhouse uniform, Zavala remained expressionless throughout the hearing, looking straight ahead and at the ceiling, avoiding eye contact with the victim's family.

A Merced County jury convicted him last month of first-degree murder for killing Hernandez. Prosecutors said Zavala had become enraged after the victim told him their relationship was over, that she'd begun seeing another man. He pumped two bullets into her body, shooting her in the back of the head and her left shoulder blade. Merced police found Hernandez's body inside her 3104 Denver Ave. apartment.

In making his decision, Garcia said the defendant was a coward for claiming that he'd blacked out when the shooting happened. Zavala showed callous indifference in killing Hernandez, Garcia said, adding he only regretted that his sentence couldn't bring the victim back.

Mike Norton, Hernandez's father, traveled from Idaho to be at Tuesday's hearing. Norton said he'd spoken to his daughter not long before her death, telling her he was proud of her for kicking a drug problem and staying clean and sober. While speaking in court, he held a framed 8-by-10-inch photo of his daughter and spoke about how he visited his daughter's grave this week. He pounded his fist on the podium, saying he was anguished that he couldn't speak to his daughter because she was "six feet under."

He told Zavala: "You will meet the ultimate judge."

Zavala's attorneys Paul Lyon and Christopher Loethen argued during trial that their client's longtime abuse of methamphetamine and cocaine substantially impaired his judgment and damaged his brain. Based on testimony from defense psychologists, Zavala's attorneys likened his mental condition to being in a car without brakes, unable to tell right from wrong. "I'm convinced that without meth, there wouldn't be this case," Lyon said after Tuesday's hearing.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Bacciarini, prosecutor in the case, said Hernandez's death exemplifies why it's important for anyone who's a victim of domestic violence to seek help immediately. "This is really the ultimate end to a domestic violence situation," Bacciarini said. "It doesn't get any more extreme than this."

The day of the murder, the former Mexican army serviceman went to Hernandez's apartment and 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.

He walked across Olive Avenue to a nearby Save Mart parking lot and 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, shot and killed Hernandez. When police entered the apartment hours later, they found the boy sitting on the floor watching television -- his mother's dead body about 10 feet away.

In addition to first-degree murder, Zavala was also found guilty on two felony counts of illegally possessing a firearm, along with an enhancement for causing great bodily injury with a firearm.

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