Crime - Sacto 911

Defendant in baby’s killing rejects DA’s plea offer

A man accused of murder in the beating-and-whiplash death of his 5-month-old nephew rejected a plea bargain Friday from the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office, his lawyers said, a deal that could have released him from prison within the next year.

Wendell James Taghap turned down the offer to plead to voluntary manslaughter in the death of Josiah Pineda two years ago, according to defense attorneys Robert and Sarah Saria.

Prosecutors made the offer Friday to Taghap following a Sacramento Superior Court jury’s 10-2 vote earlier in the week to acquit him. Judge Michael P. Kenny declared a mistrial Tuesday when the panel failed to reach a unanimous verdict on the murder charge against the 36-year-old Taghap.

The DA’s Office made the offer before a bail hearing at which the judge reduced the price on Taghap’s release to $250,000. The defendant was being held without bail.

Before the hearing, Robert Saria took Taghap to a private conference room in the courthouse while Deputy District Attorney Robin Shakely conducted her own conversation with Josiah’s mother, Daphne Pineda, in the hallway outside Kenny’s courtroom.

“There was a plea offer,” Saria said. “It was rejected. He said he wants to clear his name,” the attorney said about his client.

A voluntary manslaughter conviction carries a prison term ranging from three to 11 years. Had he been sentenced to the lower term, Taghap, who has been in custody for nearly two years, could have been eligible for a release within the next 12 months.

“It didn’t matter,” Saria said. “He would have had to admit to guilt about something he did not do.”

Officials in the District Attorney’s Office declined to discuss the offer.

On the bail motion, Kenny dropped the amount to $250,000 after the Sarias filed papers asking him to lower it to $100,000.

“I can’t think of the last homicide case where bail was granted, particularly at a level of $250,000,” Robert Saria said.

He said Taghap’s friends and relatives are in the process of coming up with the bail money.

The case has since been set for retrial on Dec. 1.

“It was a trial that had its twists and turns, and based on the evidence that came out, we’re doing further investigation, and based on that, we’re proceeding forward,” said Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Rod Norgaard.

Kenny declared the mistrial after jurors told him Tuesday that they were deadlocked after 41/2 days of deliberations, following seven days of testimony over a two-week period.

Shakely argued that Taghap killed the baby in a fit of frustrated anger, that he had been thrust into a caregiver’s role he did not want when he couldn’t find a job while his wife and her sister – the baby’s mother – worked as certified nursing assistants.

An autopsy showed that Josiah suffered three fractures to the skull and a whiplash injury to his upper spine, the probable result of being shaken in the apartment the Taghaps, the baby and Daphne Pineda shared on Truxel Road in the Natomas area.

Shakely theorized that Taghap struck the baby early in the day when he couldn’t control Josiah’s crying.

Saria cited the testimony of forensic pathologist Stephany Fiore that the baby could not have survived the whiplash injury for more than an hour, a time frame that allowed for the possibility that Josiah’s mother – who had since returned home from work – could have been responsible for the death.

Two jurors interviewed after the verdict said they did not believe the evidence was strong enough one way or the other to determine if Taghap or Pineda killed the baby – thereby creating reasonable doubt that forced them to vote for the acquittal.

One of those two jurors said she believed it was more likely in her mind that the mother killed the baby.

A juror interviewed who voted to convict Taghap said the DA’s Office “absolutely” should pursue a murder retrial.

At Friday’s bail hearing, Robert Saria told the judge that Taghap would be willing to wear a 24-hour ankle monitor and that the Filipino native would be willing to surrender his passport as a demonstration that he has no intention of returning to his country of origin to avoid the retrial.

“Mr. Taghap wants to clear his name,” Saria said. “He has an incentive to be here.”

The lawyer said “there is a constellation of a community” to support Taghap. It includes his father, the former pastor of Natomas Life Ministries who now oversees Journey Community Church in Milpitas.

Shakely questioned whether there is a tamper-proof monitoring device, and said

Taghap faces a 25-to-life sentence if he is convicted on a second count of child assault resulting in death, which creates a major incentive for him to flee.

Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.