A jury on Wednesday found Madera serial-killer Jose Guerrero guilty of first-degree murder for killing three women and attempting to murder a fourth in the 1990s.
But now jurors face a difficult decision: Should they recommend the death penalty for Guerrero, even though many of the victims' family members -- and a woman who survived Guerrero's attack -- oppose it?
Weeping relatives huddled together after the verdicts were read Wednesday morning in Madera County Superior Court and expressed their relief that Guerrero would spend the rest of his life in prison. But they were also unanimous in rejecting the death penalty.
"I don't believe in murder. It's against my religion," said Evelyn Estrada, who was 42 when she survived Guerrero's attack. "I would rather have him rot in prison for the rest of his life."
Estrada said she is Catholic.
Michael Keitz, the Madera County District Attorney, said he didn't realize Estrada and many of the other victims' relatives oppose the death penalty for Guerrero. Nevertheless, he said, his office will argue in favor of it.
Prosecutor Ed Gil said Estrada and some of the victims' family members might testify during the penalty phase of the trial, which begins Monday and is expected to last two or three days. He said he wasn't sure yet whether he would question them on the witness stand about whether they believe Guerrero should receive the death penalty.
"That particular area is obviously a very emotional area," he said. "I haven't talked to them about that yet."
Guerrero, who is Madera County's only serial killer in recent memory, terrorized the city of Madera in the 1990s with his murders, officials said. Prosecutors say all four of his victims were known to frequent C Street in Madera, a seedy part of town where prostitution and drugs were common. Guerrero picked up the women and took them to the rural outskirts of the city where he either strangled, stabbed or shot them, prosecutors said.
For years, no one was arrested for the crimes. Then in 2004, while Guerrero was in prison for a DUI conviction, he told a guard that he had murdered a woman. DNA evidence and a second confession later linked him to the other murders.
Prosecutors say Guerrero killed Tamara Hernandez, a 22-year-old mother who was stabbed to death in November 1998, Julia Woodley, a 41-year-old mother who was shot in the heart in April 1995, and Sharlene Fowler, a 30-year-old woman who was strangled in July 1998, and tried to kill Estrada, who narrowly survived an attack in November 1995.
The jury deliberated for little more than a day before reaching its decision. They also found Guerrero guilty of two counts of forcible oral copulation and one count of forcible sodomy.
As the verdicts were read Wednesday morning, Guerrero looked down at the table in front of him and nervously swiveled back and forth in his chair. At one point he wiped both hands over his face. When the clerk announced that Guerrero was found guilty of Hernandez's murder, some family members loudly whispered "Yes!" and wiped away tears.
As Guerrero was being led out of the courtroom, Woodley's father, Jerry Prudek, looked at him and said, "Guerrero, your time is coming."
Guerrero's defense attorney, Eric Green, said he believes his client had consensual sex with the victims and should have been found guilty of second-degree murder, not first-degree murder. Still, he said, he was not surprised by the verdicts.
Outside the courtroom, Hernandez's mother, Lynette Chambers, hugged her family and friends. "Justice has been served for my daughter," she said. "She's finally at peace. Her children can live a normal life."
Woodley's aunt, Lynn Miller, said the verdicts were a relief.
"I've been waiting for this for 14 years," she said. "I can't believe it's happened."