LOS ANGELES – A jury returned a death penalty recommendation Monday for a gang member from Lancaster who gunned down five people at a homeless encampment near a Long Beach freeway and a sixth person in the Antelope Valley.
The seven-woman, five-man panel deliberated for less than 2 1/2 hours before rejecting a life-without-parole option for David Ponce, who is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 27.
Ponce, 37, was convicted Sept. 22 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 and another kidnapping count involving Shraifat.
Co-defendant Max Eliseo Rafael, 31, also was convicted of the homeless encampment killings. Prosecutors decided against seeking the death penalty against Rafael, who is facing life in prison without the possibility of parole. His sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 16.
Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Barnes began her closing argument in the penalty phase of Ponce’s trial by saying she expected the defense, like the defendant’s family, to ask for mercy, but the victims received none.
“This defendant has shown not one drop of mercy,” Barnes said.
“He kills because he likes it … he loves it, he enjoys it, he’s empowered by it,” Barnes said, replaying audio clips of jailhouse statements as evidence of Ponce “celebrating” the killings.
“He kept newspaper articles, he kept souvenirs,” she said. “All six (of those shot) were innocent victims who were terrorized by the defendant and Mr. Rafael.”
The Long Beach victims lived in tents at the side of the freeway and “to (Ponce) they’re trash, they’re throwaway … and that’s just wrong,” the prosecutor said.
Ponce was the “ringleader” in Long Beach and the only one involved in the Antelope Valley killing, Barnes said.
In Long Beach, which she called “a bloodbath, a ruthless slaughter,” Ponce was after someone he believed had offered evidence in a criminal case. He killed the other four people at the encampment to avoid leaving witnesses behind, according to the prosecutor.
Barnes played recordings of Ponce bragging and reliving the details of how he killed his victims.
“I shot that (expletive) right in the face … the second one splattered in the back of the tent,” Ponce could be heard saying on the tape, recreating each shot with a “boom” and laughing about the bodies “twitching” afterward.
He talked about how he always aimed for the head to make sure none of his victims were “coming back.”
“That’s my signature work,” Ponce says in the recording. “Headshots, my boy, up close … no (expletive) hitting their bodies, dome shot.”
Later, talking about driving back from the homeless encampment to his neighborhood, Ponce says, “I was excited, boy, I was happy about it, you know what I mean?”
He was so happy that he did it again when he killed Bledsoe, Barnes said, shooting the man four times in the back of the head as he was on his knees praying.
“The defendant killed Tony Bledsoe because Tony Bledsoe owed him 200 dollars” from a drug deal, the prosecutor said. “This defendant has earned that consequence of the death penalty.”
Defense attorney Donald Calabria disagreed, calling Ponce “a good son and a good father” who had “been a model prisoner” in the five years since his arrest.
“David Ponce will die in prison. The only issue left is: who decides, you or God?,” Calabria told jurors. “The death penalty is reserved for only the very worst of the very worst. And David Ponce is not the very worst of the very worst.”
The defense attorney added: “What happened isn’t right, but it isn’t the crime of the century.”
Calabria noted that Rafael, who personally shot at least one of the victims, would be spared death.
“It’s not serious enough for the prosecutor to ask for the death of Max Rafael,” though Barnes had called them “equally guilty” during closing arguments for the guilt phase, Calabria said.
Calabria pointed to testimony by Ponce’s family, including his mother Patricia, who begged jurors last week to spare her son’s life, and also pointed to testimony by doctors who said the defendant had suffered “a traumatic (head) injury at a young age that could have led to learning problems.”
“He’s not an evil person. He has redeeming qualifies. His life is worth saving,” Calabria said, reminding jurors of testimony that Ponce talked a nephew out of joining a gang and helped a friend through a teen pregnancy.
“David Ponce is, when all is said and done, a human being,” the attorney said. “Look at him as a human being, not as a criminal, not as an animal … he’s not rotten to the core, far from it.”
Before the closing arguments, the judge polled the jurors to ask whether anyone had close family or friends who had been victims of the shooting massacre in Las Vegas on Sunday night. After the attorneys finished making their case and jurors had left the courtroom, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charlaine F. Olmedo shared a jury instruction she had drafted, at the defense’s request, to address that tragedy.
“A large-scale tragedy recently occurred in Las Vegas,” the instruction read in part. Noting that the event was “completely unrelated” to this case, the judge went on to say that “your feelings, thoughts and concerns (about that tragedy) cannot enter your deliberation process.”
The defense asked the judge to also instruct jurors not to discuss the Las Vegas shooting at all.
Ponce and Rafael have remained jailed without bail since being charged in January 2012 with the killings.
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.
Ponce has prior convictions for second-degree robbery and receiving stolen property from 2003 and possession of a controlled substance from 2002.