LOS ANGELES – The mother of a Lancaster gang member convicted of killing five people at a homeless encampment near a Long Beach freeway and a sixth person in the Antelope Valley pleaded Thursday with jurors for mercy for her son, who is facing a possible death sentence.
“I am not asking, I am begging (you) to spare his life,” Patricia Ponce told a Los Angeles Superior Court jury that is being asked to recommend if her son, David Ponce, should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole for the crimes.
Ponce, now 37, was convicted last Friday of first-degree murder for the Nov. 1, 2008, shooting deaths of Hamid Shraifat, 41, of Signal Hill; Vanessa Malaepule, 34, of Carson; and Frederick Neumeier, 53, Katherine Verdun, 24, and Lorenzo Villicana, 44, of Long Beach.
He was also found guilty of first-degree murder for the March 23, 2009, kidnapping and shooting death of Tony Bledsoe, 18, in the Lancaster area, along with two counts of unlawfully possessing a firearm.
Co-defendant Max Eliseo Rafael, 31, also was convicted of the homeless encampment killings. Prosecutors opted not to seek the death penalty against Rafael, facing life in prison without the possibility of parole when sentenced Nov. 16.
Jurors found true the special circumstance allegations of multiple murders, murder during the commission of a kidnapping and murder while an active participant in a criminal street gang, along with gang and gun allegations against the two.
Called to the stand during the defense’s portion of the penalty phase of Ponce’s trial, his mother told jurors that she loves her son “very much” and that she and others pray that he will not be sentenced to death.
She testified that Ponce had mentored one of his nephews, to whom he was “like an older brother.”
She noted that Ponce had fallen down some stairs and then rolled down some stairs when he was a young child, and that she had taken him to the hospital. He subsequently complained of headaches, his mother said.
Ponce’s mother — who has been in the downtown Los Angeles courtroom throughout her son’s trial — told jurors that she takes public transportation to court because “it’s my son.”
One of Ponce’s sisters and the mother of one of his children also implored jurors to show mercy to Ponce.
In her opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Barnes called life in prison without the possibility of parole the “minimum” sentence and death “the maximum,” and said jurors would have to weigh the aggravating factors and the mitigating factors.
“This is all about the defendant and the sentence,” Barnes told the panel.
Both sides stipulated that Ponce — who has prior convictions for second- degree robbery and receiving stolen property from 2003 and possession of a controlled substance from 2002 — and the prosecutor did not present any testimony during the penalty phase.
One of Ponce’s attorneys, Donald Calabria, told the judge he would wait to speak to jurors until closing arguments, which are expected Monday.
A clinical neuropsychologist called by the defense testified that he met with Ponce in two sessions about a year apart in jail and concluded that he suffers from a major neurocognitive disorder due to a traumatic brain injury that would be consistent with a head injury at a young age.
Dr. Roger Light told jurors that Ponce’s school records indicating low test scores and problems that started in kindergarten, along with brain imaging tests done on Ponce, are consistent with his findings.
On cross-examination, the prosecutor played a nearly four-minute video of Ponce reciting rap lyrics. The defense’s expert acknowledged that Ponce has “pretty good verbal abilities” and did not know if he made up the lyrics at the time of the video or had memorized them.
During the guilt phase of the trial, the deputy district attorney told jurors that the defendants’ own jailhouse statements prove their guilt in the killings at the homeless encampment.
“He’s not falsely bragging … He’s a killer and he’s bragging about it,” Barnes said of one jailhouse recording of Ponce.
Of a recorded conversation between Ponce and Rafael, the prosecutor said, “If you’re Rafael and you’re innocent, would you be whispering about it? … They’re whispering about the details. He’s doing that because he’s the other shooter.”
One of Ponce’s attorneys, Robert A. Schwartz, countered that the surreptitious tape recordings were made in the “upside-down world” of county jail in which inmates’ status and reputation are enhanced by claiming to have been involved in crimes.
Ponce’s lawyer said there is “no physical evidence” connecting Ponce to the killings. He told jurors that his client’s jailhouse statements are “riddled with lies and misstatements showing he wasn’t there,” and that “a lot of information” about the slayings was available in media accounts.
Rafael’s attorney, Marc Lewinstein, asked jurors to determine if the statements were “false bravado” rather than actual admissions.
Rafael’s attorney has suggested that it was not his client but another man — to whom Villicana allegedly owed money — who was one of the two people who went to the encampment and carried out the attacks. The prosecutor countered in her rebuttal argument that jurors did not hear any evidence that the man was even in Long Beach that day.
After the two were charged, then-Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell said, “I’d like to make it clear that these victims were not targeted because they were homeless … This encounter stemmed from a personal vendetta of one of the suspects as the result of an ongoing dispute with one of the victims over narcotics. The other victims were killed to ensure that there were no witnesses to this crime.”
Ponce and Rafael were charged in January 2012 with the killings and have remained jailed without bail since then.