Phillip Raymond Hernandez saw himself as the sure loser in his custody fight with his estranged wife over their two sons, so he did what he said “had to be done” – and killed the younger one with a hatchet chop to the head, a prosecutor told a Sacramento Superior Court jury Wednesday.
Toward the end of his opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Chris Ore showed the jury the murder weapon, wrapped in plastic. It’s the ax the deputy DA says Hernandez used to kill his son Matthew Hernandez, 9, on Feb. 26, 2013, while the little boy slept in what they called the prayer room in the South Natomas home of the defendant’s grandmother.
“Matthew was killed by this ax, for no great reason,” Ore said, other than Hernandez’s goal to render, in the defendant’s word, “pyrrhic” any child custody victory won by his wife.
Defense attorney Chet Templeton, in his opening statement, said there was no doubt Hernandez killed his son. Adelaida Amezola, the defendant’s grandmother, tried to intervene and then witnessed the attack after Hernandez knocked her down. It was a homicide, Templeton conceded, but he asked the jury to keep an open mind to allow for “something lesser” than a first-degree finding.
“He couldn’t premeditate or deliberate,” Templeton told the jury, the two elements necessary for a first-degree murder conviction. Hernandez, Templeton said, had been “talking very strangely” earlier in the evening and “he was only there physically, not mentally.”
Ore, in his opening in front of Judge Robert M. Twiss, told the story that led to the tragedy on Atrisco Circle.
The prosecutor said Hernandez, now 38, and his wife, Jessica, had long-standing relationship issues. They had their older child, Phillip Jr., who was two years older than Matthew, before they separated. They reunited and had their younger son.
When the couple broke up again, Hernandez maintained custody of the boys while Jessica moved to Las Vegas and worked as an exotic dancer. She said the job enabled her to send money to Sacramento to help raise her sons, according to Ore.
The couple failed to repair their fractured marriage, Ore said, and even though Hernandez retained custody, he would tell Jessica that Matthew, who looked more like his mother, “gets under my skin. … He reminds me so much of you.”
Detectives asked Hernandez after the killing if he would have done the same thing to his older son, and he told them, “I wouldn’t have touched him,” Ore told the jury.
In the fall of 2012, Ore said that Jessica Hernandez sought to obtain custody of the kids. She thought the unemployed Phillip, then living with his grandmother, was doing drugs. She took her case to family court, the prosecutor said, but Judge Sharon Lueras allowed Phillip Hernandez to maintain custody of his sons.
In February, Jessica Hernandez called Child Protective Services and told the agency about his alleged drug use. A CPS worker arranged for a drug test that Hernandez failed – his system showed the presence of methamphetamine and THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, according to Ore.
At 9 o’clock the night of the killing, Hernandez went to his uncle’s house carrying a Bible and proclaimed himself to be Jesus, Ore’s trial brief said. He went home at 10:45 p.m., retrieved the ax and smashed open a rear sliding glass door with a dumbbell. He found his son asleep on the couch in the living room that had been refashioned into a prayer room.
Startled by the noise, Amezola rushed to the back of the house and saw her grandson standing over her great-grandson, with the ax raised. She testified at his preliminary hearing that Hernandez told her, “I’m going to do what I have to do.’”
Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.