Jurors needed just a little more than two days to come back with verdicts Tuesday that convicted two men of first-degree murder in the shooting death of a 7-month-old baby and his father seven years ago.
The convictions with the accompanying special circumstances against Donald Ortez-Lucero, 29, and Christopher Nicholas Strong, 30, are likely to send the two men to prison for life with no possibility of parole.
According to the jury, Ortez-Lucero and Strong set out to rob a drug house the afternoon of Sept. 14, 2007, in south Sacramento. As they walked toward the home, Sean Aquitania Sr., 21, was driving up with his son, Sean Jr., to visit Aquitania’s friend who lived in the residence in Country Greens Court.
The defendants then sought to use the elder Aquitania to make it easier for them to get into the house, according to the prosecution, and when he resisted, Ortez-Lucero pistol-whipped him. During the beating, Ortez-Lucero’s gun went off and a bullet went through the baby’s head. The picture of the bullet’s exit wound to the right of the boy’s nose endured as the most searing image of the trial that began on Feb. 3.
“We waited for this for so long, and to get the verdict that we did, we were very happy and blessed, and we’re just happy that we got the justice that we deserved and that Sean and the baby deserve as well,” said Monique Dela Cruz, Aquitania’s girlfriend and the baby’s mother.
“Just tears of joy,” said Sarah Aquitania, the mother and grandmother of the victims. “That’s what we wanted and hoped for.”
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Patrick Marlette scheduled a May 9 sentencing for Ortez-Lucero and Strong.
In addition to the first-degree murder convictions, the jury also found true three special-circumstance allegations – that the murder took place during the course of a burglary, that it also occurred amid an attempted robbery, and that there were multiple murders.
The jury returned separate convictions of burglary and attempted robbery against both defendants.
“We’re very pleased with the verdict,” said Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi. “We appreciate the hard work by the jury. But there’s not a lot of joy at the end of the day. Justice was served, and we hope there’s comfort for the victims’ family and friends.”
Some members of the jury wept in the courtroom’s second-floor hallway. None of the members of the panel agreed to discuss the case in public. One of the jurors said the deliberations were too emotional. The jurors were escorted to their cars by sheriff’s deputies.
Deputy District Attorney Eric Kindall built the case on two key areas of evidence that he said definitively linked the defendants to the shooting.
The first was DNA taken from underneath the fingernails of Sean Aquitania Sr.
After the pistol-whipping in front of the drug house, and after the gunmen used Aquitania to get inside, they let him leave the house to attend to his baby. When he returned to the car, he saw that his son had been shot. Aquitania ran back inside the house and flung himself on the gunmen before he was shot and killed. In examining his fingernail scrapings, criminalists retrieved some DNA that matched Ortez-Lucero’s genetic material, according to evidence at trial.
The second critical component, Kindall said in his closing argument, was the evidence showing that Strong had been shot in the left knee, by a bullet that had passed through Aquitania. Strong testified at trial that he was never shot.
Defense attorneys sought to blame the murders on a friend and one-time roommate of the defendants named Richard Noguera. At trial, Noguera testified that Ortez-Lucero and Strong told him what happened on Country Greens Court.
Noguera at times claimed credit for the shooting, and his remarks were reported by his girlfriend to Sacramento sheriff’s detectives. Authorities arrested Noguera and charged him with murder, but the case against him was dismissed after he cooperated in the investigation into Ortez-Lucero and Strong.
Charles Bourdon, the attorney who represented Ortez-Lucero, said he and co-counsel Ruth Edelstein were disappointed with the verdict.
“I think there was a lot of evidence that the jury frankly didn’t spend enough time going through, in our view, because there was just so much,” Bourdon said. “But there are post-trial motions, and we’ll be working on those. There is an appeal to be had.”
Don Masuda, who represented Strong, argued that his client was never shot. Masuda was not available for comment after the verdict.
Monique Dela Cruz said “you always have a little bit of doubt” in waiting for the verdict.
“You never know what can happen,” she said. “But we kept our faith, we thought positive, and we have the support of our family and our friends, and we just kept that faith and it happened. And we’re all very thankful.”