The opening arguments in the People v. Richard Contreras case left little room for anything other than a guilty verdict. Two witnesses told police they drove Contreras to Twin Peaks on the night of Feb. 13, 2016. They also said they saw him pull out a gun — and as they turned and ran, heard several gunshots ring out across the parking lot. Two other witnesses say Contreras carjacked their vehicle at gunpoint, taking off down the mountain. And at the end of those chaotic few minutes, two young men — Julio Peraza, 21, and Rene Mora, 19 — were dead, and another critically injured.
But after several days of deliberations from the jury, they returned with an unexpected verdict: they were hung, 8 to 4 in favor of the defendant. The group of people who witnessed the case unfold in court could not decide for certain whether or not Contreras was at fault.
In other words, the defense made a really strong case. Public Defender Kleigh Hathaway ran her case on the basis that Contreras acted out of self-defense. Born to Mexican immigrants, he was bullied as a child for his accent, behavior, and petite figure. He was targeted even as he grew up; mere days before the Twin Peaks shooting he’d been jumped and beaten by several men, leaving his face battered and bruised. So when he accidentally crashed a party on Twin Peaks, Hathaway says, he pulled out a gun in anticipation of violence to come.
In any other case it could have been a weak defense; arguing a gunman was bullied is a somewhat tired trope at this point, and as a society, we’ve moved beyond that being an excuse for murder. But Contreras had a key advantage: friends and family of the victims were reluctant to talk to authorities about the night, leaving gaping holes in the story that Hathaway was more than willing to fill with her own interpretation of events.
The verdict was a surprise even to Hathaway. “This is an outcome that I was not convinced I could hope for,” she said. “But after talking to the jury, I’m very grateful that they found the courage to do the right thing. They understood that my client was outnumbered and about to be jumped by gang members, and he did what he felt he had to do.”
Hathaway’s boss, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, says Contreras has proven his remorse.
“In taking the stand himself, Mr. Contreras explained what happened that terrible night and subjected himself to cross-examination,” said Adachi. “I’m sure if he could turn back time, he never would have driven to Twin Peaks that night. Thankfully, much of the jury weighed all the details and evidence and voted with their conscience.”
District Attorney George Gascon will decide in the next week if the case will be retried.