June 11, 2014

Modesto double homicide trial suspended to determine mental competency

An attempt to reschedule a Modesto double homicide trial became further complicated Wednesday after a judge suspended the case to determine whether one of the defendants is mentally competent.

An attempt to reschedule a Modesto double homicide trial became further complicated Wednesday after a judge suspended the case to determine whether one of the defendants is mentally competent.

Randy Sifuentez and Aaron Aguilera initially were scheduled to stand trial last week. They’re accused of murder in the 2009 shooting deaths of Epifanio Ramirez Jr., 10, and Jason Cyphers, 29, in the 100 block of Santa Barbara Avenue in the La Loma neighborhood.

Sifuentez’s attorney, Vangie Eidsvik-Garza, died last week. The court was trying to determine how to proceed, knowing Sifuentez’s newly appointed attorney would not be ready to go to trial on this case.

But Aguilera on Wednesday afternoon did not want to waive his right to a speedy trial. The defendant was worried that the trial could be delayed several months, and he wanted his case to proceed as soon as possible.

Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan told the judge he would be ready to proceed to trial with Aguilera alone in a few weeks. Sifuentez would wait and stand trial next year, possibly with the third defendant in the gang-related murder case, Joe Luis Ramirez.

Robert Winston, Aguilera’s defense attorney, preferred to wait, so Aguilera and Sifuentez could stand trial together. The defendants have been prosecuted together since May 2011.

Winston told the judge that it would be to his client’s advantage if he and Sifuentez were prosecuted together. Winston would like to present a unified defense because the strategies for these defendants have been complementary to each other.

The defense attorney said he doesn’t expect the defense strategies to change with Sifuentez’s new attorney, Stephen Foley.

Aguilera said he was willing to wait, but only if the trial was rescheduled Wednesday to start in a few months.

Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Marie Silveira told Aguilera that she was not prepared to reschedule right away. She said the attorneys need time to review the case before they can start discussing possible start dates for the trial.

The judge explained to Aguilera that Eidsvik-Garza’s death presented a difficult obstacle for the new attorney. Silveira told Aguilera that if he wasn’t willing to wait to reschedule his trial, he would have to proceed to trial without Sifuentez.

Aguilera didn’t change his mind. But before the judge could start to determine how to proceed with Aguilera, his attorney asked to the judge to suspend the case.

Winston said he has serious doubts about Aguilera’s competency to understand the criminal case against him and the possible consequences he faces. He said he waited to speak up until the end because he didn’t know how Wednesday’s hearing would go.

“But there is a deep undercurrent that has been troubling me for some time,” Winston said about his client’s competency.

Silveira tried to defuse the situation. She told Winston that it seemed as though Aguilera was trying to negotiate trial dates with the court, and that she will not negotiate with him. She offered to bring the defendants back to court in a week, hoping the situation could change.

Winston told her that waiting a week would not change anything, and asked for his client to be mentally evaluated before proceeding with the case.

The judge suspended the case and ordered forensic psychologist Phil Trompetter to evaluate Aguilera. She scheduled a hearing July 14 to determine his mental competency.

If convicted, Aguilera and Sifuentez face maximum sentences of life in prison without parole. Prosecutors have not decided whether to seek the death penalty against Joe Ramirez.

All three defendants remain in custody at the Stanislaus County Jail.

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