With their hands tied by the courtroom antics of their own client, Luis Bracamontes’ public defenders continued their effort Tuesday to keep him out of San Quentin’s death chamber, presenting tearful family members who recalled him as a young boy growing up in a family wracked by poverty, mental illness and alcoholism.
Attorneys Norm Dawson and Jeffrey Barbour have tried in the penalty phase of his trial to present a somewhat human side to the man who was convicted last month of murdering two Sacramento-area deputies in a 2014 crime spree.
But he has not made their job any easier.
On Monday, as lawyers prepared to bring in some of Bracamontes’ family members, their client got himself tossed out of court twice for spouting profanities and calling Sacramento Superior Court Judge Steve White names.
He did the same thing again Tuesday morning, when he lasted eight seconds into the court hearing before White ordered him removed. In the afternoon session, he lasted 10 seconds.
Despite repeated outbursts, White said Monday that due to “constitutional concerns,” he would ask that Bracamontes be present at the start of each court session.
Jurors who are to decide whether he gets the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole witnessed Tuesday’s outburst, as did Bracamontes' youngest sister, who broke down bawling on the witness stand as he was escorted out.
Erika Monroy, one of several family members and friends who have traveled from Sinaloa, Mexico, to try to save Bracamontes from the death penalty, described the heartbreak in her family from her brother’s crimes.
Family members could not believe the news when they heard Bracamontes had been arrested in the slayings of Sacramento sheriff's Deputy Danny Oliver and Placer County sheriff’s Detective Michael Davis Jr., said Monroy, at 35 the youngest of eight siblings.
“The first thing that went through my mind (was) if they're going to kill my brother,” Monroy said as the mothers of the slain officers sat in the courtroom.
Even with his conviction, Monroy said, “I love him with all my heart.”
But, under questioning from prosecutor Dave Tellman, she conceded that Bracamontes had an explosive temper sometimes and would get angry, “similar to my father.”
Monroy and other family members testified through Spanish interpreters and described the extreme hardship the family faced growing up in a tiny farming community known as Tierra y Libertad, where they were raised in a one-room home made partly of cardboard walls with no toilets or running water.
The only toys they had as children were marbles, one sister testified, and if they had to use the bathroom, they would go in a field. If they needed water, they had to haul it in buckets from a canal where the family also swam and hunted frogs to sell to restaurants for extra money, witnesses testified.
That earned the family the derisive nickname “The Frogs” from neighbors, one childhood friend, Leonardo Abundis Munoz, testified Tuesday.
Munoz said he had last seen Bracamontes in Phoenix about 18 years ago, where Bracamontes lived before settling in Salt Lake City.
Munoz was walking on a street looking for work when Bracamontes spotted him while driving by, Munoz said, and his old friend went out of his way to be generous.
“He saw that it had been like a day since I had eaten and he helped me out with $40,” Munoz said, adding that he went to Bracamontes’ home and spent time reminiscing.
“We talked about stories and our childhood, sadness and everything, but in the end we would giggle because it was in the past,” Munoz recalled.
Years later, when he heard that Bracamontes had been arrested, Munoz said “it made me very sad.”
“I never imagined that Luis could commit such a cruel, such a cruel crime,” he said.
Others have testified about the difficulty the Bracamontes children faced growing up: their now-deceased father was an alcoholic who had an affair with another woman in the village and once brought a baby they had together into the Bracamontes home to stay.
Bracamontes’ mother suffers from severe depression and was hospitalized. Today, Erika Monroy said, she “would just be in a corner without speaking to anyone.”
Other family members have suffered from mental issues, and some have committed suicide, family members testified, an apparent effort by the defense to once again raise the notion that Bracamontes is mentally ill.
His lawyers have argued that point for years, and they have elicited testimony this week from residents of his hometown about the heavy use of pesticides on farmland where Bracamontes worked as a boy and the use of aerial chemical bombardments that drifted from the farmland over homes and the canal that supplied drinking water.
Testimony is expected to continue into next week. The proceedings may be interrupted March 23, when Bracamontes' wife, Janelle Monroy, faces sentencing for her role in the crime spree. She could face up to life.
Bracamontes was in the United States illegally at the time of the slayings and had been deported several times for gun and drug convictions in Arizona.
His crimes have evolved into a rallying cry for opponents of illegal immigration, including President Donald Trump, who was in California Tuesday to tour prototypes of his proposed border wall.