The murder trial for Oscar Carrillo got under way mid-week, after a long jury selection process that included questionnaires in advance to do away with the majority of shirking prospective jurors who wanted nothing to do with a case predicated on the idea that sex-crime suspects have to register and vengeful individuals can find out where these registrants live and go visit murder on them.
That was Prosecution’s “theory,” as the legal-beagles say, at Carrillo’s prelim and it doesn’t seem to have changed much in the intervening two years. But at long last we now have a clear, a concise and a plainly articulated idea of what the defense is going to be. The defense is rarely available in the early stages, even at a delayed prelim, and, as delivered by defense attorney Mark Topal, it is a very simple case indeed.
Mr. Topal asserted, and told the jury in his opening statement, that the evidence would eventually show that the accused, Oscar Carrillo, was lured into the apartment next to his own at the Toplak Apartments on the barren, light-industrial north end of Ukiah. Four other men also lived in Apt. No. 3, among them Salvador Hernandez, Daniel Escamilla, and Mario Fuentes – the fourth person wasn’t mentioned, yet. The defense said that Carrillo was lured there to get loaded and then he was attacked.
Mr. Topol went on to say that on the fateful March 21st in question, 2016, his client Oscar Carrillo was outside working on his vehicle when one of the guys from Apt. No. 2, Daniel Escamilla — a large young man quite familiar to the cops and often in the local booking log — came out and asked if Carrillo happened to have any meth. Carrillo said sure, and the two went into Apt. No. 3, walking on past the living room and the kitchen, and on into the bedroom, where two pallets were laid on the floor, and a couple of mattresses and bedding where two men were apparently quartered.
As the two men stood between the beds on the floor, Oscar cut out a line of meth, and he and his host, Escamilla, each took a very modest snort, I’m sure.
At this point – considering the incomprehensible time-frame a go-fast addict relates to – Oscar suddenly found himself attacked from behind and a knife blade laid across his throat.
Oscar, mindless of the risk to his hand (the meth may have helped here), grabbed the knife by the blade – which resulted in a cut that nearly severed his pinky finger – and flung the knife out of his attacker’s hand – and his attacker, defense attorney Topal asserted to the jurors, was none other than the eventual victim, Salvador ‘Sal’ Hernandez!
Again, we are back in the world of a timeline highly distorted by doses of a central nervous system stimulant so intense it disrupts, to put it mildly, “our internal clock,” and so there was some unknown lapse of time when Oscar Carrillo flung off his attacker, and threw the offending knife off somewhere into the room. Oscar, then un-slung his backpack, which he happened to be wearing, and fished out a truly deadly weapon, a smallish machete with something very like saw-teeth cut into the spine of the blade above the beveled cutting edge of a long, hefty brush-hewing kind of “knife” with the double utility of a saw, and all-in-all, a weapon that makes the classic Roman short sword look like a glorified letter opener.
Attorney Topol's telling of the fight, especially the grabbing of the threatening blade, reminded me of that scene in Rob Roy where the English toff (Tim Roth) flicks his sword against our hero Liam Neeson’s throat – which Rob Roy suddenly takes in his hands and overpowers the better swordsman by brute Scots force, and to bloody hell wi’ me fingers, lad! – yah!
At the same time (again, that iffy dimension, the twilight zone of tweaker-time), defense attorney Topol said, Sal Hernandez returned and tried to re-enter the room, but it’s Carrillo’s story that he held the door shut with his wounded hand – Ouch! — and the photos of the bloody door, just where you would hold it, attest to this. But in addition Topol said there would be blood-smear experts to verify it “beyond any doubt” — until he, Oscar, had filled his good hand with the hilt of the nasty knife he seemed always to carry in his trusty backpack. Then, when the door gave way, and he, Oscar, flew into a “frenzy,” Mr. Topal said, and stabbed, hacked and cut his victim Sal Hernandez over 70 times in less than a minute, pursuing him into the parking lot where Hernandez finally fell dead.
Why was Oscar Carrillo carrying such a formidable knife? Because, Topal said, he lived next to “these guys,” the four men in the adjacent apartment, and there wasn’t much said between them that Oscar Carrillo didn’t hear quite regularly, and there was bad blood between them -- gang affiliations were alluded to, drugs were alluded to -- and though Mr. Topal didn’t cite it as a motive, but he made a final point of saying that Daniel Escamilla and Mario Fuentes moved into Apt. No. 2 right after Oscar Carrillo went to jail after his arrest for the murder of Hernandez.
Opportunists of the worst kind.
Mr. Topal said that his client, Oscar Carrillo, had had a rough childhood, a rigid disciplinarian for a father, who beat him cruelly for the slightest neglect of arbitrary rules, and that Oscar was highly “paranoid” as a result of such a harsh upbringing and that he was psychologically susceptible subsequently to threats. The attack by Salvador Hernandez had set Oscar off again into an understandable, if not justifiable, fury of lethal reprisal against Sal Hernandez.
The hacking and stabbing — and resultant howling and yelling — in Apt. No. 3 had raised a such din of alarm throughout the thin-walled apartments that several people — everyone being home at dinnertime, between six and seven in the evening — were all alerted that something dreadful was afoot. The police had already been called when Salvador and Oscar burst through the door of Apt. No. 3, into the parking lot. A guy in a storage unit nearby picked up a baseball bat, vaulted a fence, and came running to the rescue. By this time the first responders were arriving. The guy with the bat, the screaming women, the howling sirens, all caused Oscar to run for it, and he was subsequently apprehended by a K-9 in the closet of a house under construction, soaked in blood by then, both his own and his "victim's."
Most of the testimony of the eye-witnesses was a repetition of the preliminary hearing, which may be found in the AVA’s on-line archive, but the previous cross-examination by defense, back during the innocuous prelim, now can be seen to have had a keen and needling purpose that was lacking before. But when the Medical Examiner at the time, Dr. Jacqueline Benjamin (who has since moved on), was flown in from New Jersey on Thursday, and the jury was given perhaps more than curiosity could handle in the matter of the 70 cuts and stabs Salvador Hernandez died of, the needling lost its point, because the jurors did not necessarily need a forensic pathologist to see that the recovered weapon, the modified machete described above, had caused the wounds Sal Hernandez died of.
Mr. Topal recognized that that was not the point. There was no question his client had killed Hernandez. The point Topal was getting at was motive, as best a courthouse hack of my meager insight into "the system” could tell.
As the week ended there was a stall in the proceedings involving a floor-plan diagram of Apt. No. 3, like you might see on an architect’s tilt-table. But it wasn’t exactly to everybody’s liking and some discussions were held in the judge’s chambers until at last on Friday I adjourned to the tap-room, while the legal quibbles were sorted out.
At this early stage, I can only say that it promises to be a lengthy trial, as well as a controversial one.