"Evil doesn't mean insane."
These were a prosecutor's words, which resonated with jurors who determined Jose Blas Zavala was sane when he coldly pumped two bullets into his former girlfriend, Jennifer Hernandez, killing her.
Jurors found Zavala guilty of first-degree murder for killing Hernandez last week. Before trial, he entered a dual plea of not guilty, and not guilty by reason of insanity.
The sanity phase of Zavala's trial began Monday and the jury reached its decision Wednesday.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Bacciarini argued two court appointed psychologists, Andrew Neufeld and Philip Trompetter, determined Zavala was sane when he killed Hernandez, 27, in her Denver Avenue apartment on Dec. 3, 2007. Merced police believe Zavala murdered Hernandez in a jealous rage, after learning she was dating another man.
Bacciarini, who prosecuted the case with Deputy District Attorney Thomas Min, said during closing arguments that although Zavala is an evil man, he wasn't legally insane. Bacciarini said Zavala's plea was only a ploy to absolve himself of a horrific crime.
"He understood what he was doing when he shot Jennifer, he understood that it was legally and morally wrong," Bacciarini said. "I want to thank the jurors for holding him accountable for what he did."
Zavala showed no emotion as the jury's verdict was read. The courtroom gallery was nearly empty, and no one from either Zavala's or Hernandez's family was present for the hearing.
The day of the murder, the 31-year-old former Mexican army serviceman went to Hernandez's apartment, and watched the victim walk her 9-year-old daughter to a school bus stop. After Zavala went to the apartment to confront Hernandez, she informed him of a new boyfriend in her life.
He walked across Olive Avenue to a nearby Save Mart parking lot and retrieved a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson five-shot revolver from his car. He returned to the apartment and walked the 2-year-old son he'd fathered with Hernandez outside.
Zavala re-entered the apartment and, at point-blank range, fired up to four shots at Hernandez. Two bullets struck Hernandez, one in the back of the head, the other near her left shoulder blade. She collapsed on the floor and died.
Christopher Loethen and Paul Lyon, the deputy public defenders who represented Zavala, argued his longtime drug abuse substantially impaired his judgment -- and he was unable to tell right from wrong.
During the trial, jurors heard from Richard Black, a Fresno-based clinical forensic psychologist, who testified Zavala suffered from longtime abuse of methamphetamine and a schizo-affective disorder, characterized by mood swings and a need to be isolated from others.
Lyon and Loethen had no comment after the jury decided Zavala was sane. Loethen e-mailed a statement to the Sun-Star, calling the case "incredibly sad." His statement said Zavala and Hernandez "loved one another" and struggled through addiction, homelessness and recovery together.
Loethen's statement said Zavala and Hernandez had spent Thanksgiving together and bought a Christmas tree two days before she died. "Despite all this, Jennifer died violently and tragically from a gun in Jose's possession," Loethen said in the e-mail.
His e-mail went on to say Zavala only wanted to know, after the verdict was read, whether he could have love letters Hernandez wrote to him returned. Those letters were seized as evidence by police. "There are no winners in a case like this," Loethen concluded.
Bacciarini characterized the relationship between Zavala and the victim as extremely abusive, saying the tragic case is nothing less than the ultimate act of domestic violence.
"I would hope this will send a real strong signal to victims of domestic violence that if you're in this type of relationship and you don't think it will happen to you, this could be the result," Bacciarini said. "I would urge any person in an abusive relationship to seek help. Because you can't fool yourself that this kind of ultimate act of domestic violence won't happen."
Zavala faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and is scheduled to be sentenced by Judge Marc Garcia on March 23.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.