SANTA ROSA, Calif. (CN) — A California appeals court overturned a homeless man's first-degree murder conviction because the trial judge wrongfully excluded expert testimony on the plight and dangers homeless people face.
Vladimir Sotelo-Urena, 31, was convicted of the Dec. 24, 2013 murder of Nicholas Bloom. Both men were homeless in Santa Rosa. Sotelo-Urena claimed it was self-defense: that he thought Bloom had attacked him before and he feared for his life.
An expert witness was to testify that because homeless victims are subject to violent crimes at much higher rates than people with homes, Sotelo-Urena was much more sensitive to perceived threats.
According to the National Coalition of the Homeless, in the past 17 years there have been 1,657 reported acts of violence against the homeless and 428 homeless people have been killed. And the problem appears to be getting worse.
In 2013, 109 attacks against the homeless were reported and 18 people were killed: a 23.8 percent increase over 2012.
In 2014, there were 122 victims and 26 deaths. The attackers are generally men younger than 30 — often teenage boys. But the trial court decided this was not relevant to Sotelo-Urena's claim that he believed he needed to use lethal force to protect himself.
It happened on Christmas Eve. According to trial testimony, Donovan Sweeden watched Bloom inject enough methamphetamine to kill most people. After shooting up, Sweeden became agitated and went for a walk down Jeju Way, an alley behind the library, where Sotelo-Urena had been camping for two weeks. Sweeden described Bloom as "hot" and "explosive."
Sotelo-Urena told police that when Bloom found him he was sitting alone reading the Quran. Bloom asked him for a cigarette and Sotelo-Urena tried to ignore him, but Bloom asked again and moved closer, belligerently. Sotelo-Urena had recently been stabbed by a gang of men and thought he recognized Bloom as one of them.
After that encounter, Sotelo-Urena began packing a kitchen knife and when Bloom reached for something in his waistband, Sotelo-Urena pulled out his knife.
"I just felt like I was in a position of danger and it was, and it got my nerves rattled, ya know? My adrenaline just jumped up," he said, according to the Wednesday ruling from the First Appellate District, Division Two.
Sotelo-Urena told Bloom to back off, but Bloom laughed and the tangled. They sort of "waltzed" down the street, moving about a block, and Bloom was stabbed in the neck and body.
"Last time it happened is because I waited. And because, ya know, I let, you know, him get the best of me, you know, and I wasn't gonna do that a second time," Sotelo-Urena told police. He eventually acknowledged that he was trying to kill Bloom.
"Essentially, yes. I wasn't tryin' to tickle him," he said.
After killing Bloom, Sotelo-Urena sat down and waited for police. A witness described him as silent and despondent as he waited. Another one said he'd heard what happened, and described a heated argument between the two men, but saw nothing.
Bloom had eight deep stab wounds to his chest and abdomen and 70 to 80 lighter wounds, mostly to the neck, that caused a nearly 10-inch gaping wound. He died mostly due to the injuries to his torso, but the neck wounds and methamphetamine intoxication contributed. He tested positive for methamphetamine, amphetamine, THC and opioids. Sotelo-Urena had no intoxicants in his system.
In Sotelo-Urena's defense, Robert C. Coates, a retired San Diego County Superior Court judge, was to testify on the experience of the homelessness and that data show they suffer exposure to violence. But the trial judge ruled that the issue was not whether the defendant was homeless, but rather "what risk did he face that anybody would face sitting behind the library on Christmas Eve at night?" and that "homelessness has nothing to do with his possible victimization."
A jury found Sotelo-Urena guilty and he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, with an additional year tacked on for using a knife.
He appealed, saying the trial court, in Sonoma County, abused its discretion and deprived him of his constitutional right to present a complete defense by excluding Coates' testimony.
In overturning the conviction Wednesday, the appeals court began by citing out the recent murders of several other homeless men.
In April, George Lowery, a 50-year-old homeless man, was beaten to death in San Diego County and a homeless man in Fresno, Gerald Holiday, was murdered near a Dumpster.
In May, Stephen Williams, also homeless, was found dead in a pond in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and Joshua William Clark, 37, was killed fighting with another homeless man over cigarettes or pot.
In July, police arrested a man in San Diego suspected of a spree of attacks that left three homeless men dead and others injured.
"These tragedies in those few months are not anomalies — studies show that homeless individuals are the victims of crime at a significantly higher rate than housed individuals," Acting Presiding Judge James Richman wrote for the panel.
"Thus, had the jury heard Judge Coates expert opinion, there is reasonable probability of a more favorable result ... it might have returned a verdict of second-degree murder rather than first-degree murder.
"The judgment of conviction is reversed."
Judges Therese Stewart and Marla Miller joined Richman on the panel.
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