YAKIMA - Dressed in a simple black jersey with a silver 07 emblazoned on it, 15-year-old Antonio Aguilar Jr. of Sunnyside entered an Alford plea to one count of first degree manslaughter Monday afternoon in Yakima County Juvenile Court.
On the other side of the courtroom sat the mother of Nora Gonzalez, wearing a t-shirt with a picture of her daughter on it. Quietly, she listened as an interpreter translated that Aguilar did not admit to negligently killing her daughter, but that he would still be sentenced as if he pled guilty. Aguilar's case had been scheduled to go to trial beginning today (Tuesday).
The plea presented by Aguilar's attorney, Jennifer Barn-Swan, is not an admission of guilt by the defendant, rather it is a plea in which the defendant admits that there is sufficient evidence for the prosecution to convict him of the crime. An Alford plea is treated as a guilty plea as far as sentencing is concerned. A disposition hearing, which will include sentencing, is scheduled for May 24. The firearm enhancement charge, which would have given him four additional months in the juvenile detention center, was dismissed.
Aguilar was arrested by Sunnyside police detectives Oct. 28, 2004 after he shot and killed his 11-year-old cousin, Nora Gonzalez.
Judge F. James Gavin, who presided over the case, questioned Aguilar about his plea, making sure the teen understood what it meant. He only received one word "yes" and "no" answers from Aguilar, indicating that he understood his plea and that he was not forced into making the deal or promised anything.
By entering an Alford plea, Gavin pointed out to Aguilar his right to possess firearms will be taken away from him.
"Probably for the rest of your life you will lose the right to possess firearms," said Gavin. "It will keep you from getting certain jobs. You could not be in the military and you couldn't work in law enforcement," he said, naming a few of the roles that include carrying a firearm.
Outlining some of the facts of the case, Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Bill Eller said Aguilar was arrested after shots were reportedly fired at a home at 713 S. Fourth St., Sunnyside.
The victim, 11-year-old Nora Gonzalez and a cousin of Aguilar, was found shot in the head in one of the bedrooms of the home. According to Sunnyside Police Det. Jim Orth, who has been working on the case, the girl was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center, where she later died.
Orth said Aguilar, Gonzalez and the young girl's brother were skipping school when the shooting occurred.
After the girl was shot, Aguilar called 911.
"After reviewing the 911 tapes, he misled, almost immediately, the 911 operator," said Orth.
Aguilar told police that two men wearing black had shot through the window and then headed up the side of Harrison Hill on foot.
"It didn't take long to look at the crime scene and know that's not what happened," said Orth.
Officers were not able to find footprints on the dusty hillside where Aguilar said the alleged shooters fled.
Within minutes of Aguilar and Gonzalez's brother being taken to the Sunnyside Law and Justice Center, a very different story was told by the victim's brother.
The brother pointed a finger at Aguilar.
Orth said that through the investigation he found out that the three were playing with "Scream" masks, a goulish, white faced mask from the movie "Scream."
The three were skipping school and watching a movie just prior to the shooting, said Orth.
The victim's brother was resting on a bed, while Gonzalez and Aguilar were "playing around" when the shooting occurred, said Orth.
"(Aguilar) was playing with the gun," said Orth. "He was loading and unloading it. He pointed (the gun) at her, right at her forehead and pulled the trigger."
Orth estimates that Aguilar was about four feet from his cousin when he shot her. She was wearing a "Scream" mask when she was shot with the 380 semi-automatic pistol, which was registered to Aguilar's mother.
"There were two masks in the house. He hid the masks and the gun before we got there," said Orth. Police found the mask with the gunshot holes in it from where the bullet entered and exited the young girl's head.
Aguilar's mother told police she hid the gun in a different location daily so he wouldn't find it.
"The sad thing is, if the mom would have had a gun lock on it, it wouldn't have happened," said Orth, adding that at the time of the shooting the Sunnyside Police Department was in the middle of a campaign giving away free gun locks.
Orth and Eller said evidence showed there wasn't any criminal intent behind the shooting.
"It was an accident," said Orth.
In court, Eller said that the facts of the case showed criminal recklessness.
Gavin told the court that his belief is that if the case were to go to trial Aguilar would be found guilty of first degree manslaughter without a reasonable doubt.
As part of the plea agreement, Aguilar will be sentenced to 28 to 36 weeks in the juvenile detention center.
"In essence, the plea agreement is for seven to nine months," said Eller.
Eller added that Aguilar has had no criminal violations while he's been on pre-trial release.
Eller said that there were a few unanswered questions that led prosecutors to the decision to accept the plea. Questions such as why Aguilar had the gun and how long he possessed the gun that day were among those unanswered.
"Nothing in this case is good because of the amount of punishment that's involved," said Eller.
He said seven to nine months for taking another life isn't enough, but said the plea arrangement made sense because the most time Aguilar could have been put away for was 13 months.
Besides spending several months in the juvenile detention center, Aguilar will also be sentenced to 20 to 24 weeks of probation, and the Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration may place restrictions on who he can and cannot see after he is released from the juvenile detention center.
The disposition hearing scheduled for Tuesday, May 24, at 2 p.m. will be a time for the defendant and the family of the victim to address the court. Also making statements on how much time Aguilar should be put behind bars will be the defense and prosecuting attorneys and law enforcement.