Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Jury takes over in trial of man accused of beheading ex

A gruesome murder borne of mental illness or vengeance? A jury will soon decide.

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (CN) — A Northern California jury will now decide the fate of a man accused of using a samurai sword to murder the mother of his child in 2022. 

Jose Rafael Solano Landaeta was once again absent from a Redwood City courtroom Friday as his trial wrapped up. Prosecutors presented evidence that Landaeta killed his ex-partner by repeatedly hacking her neck and shoulders in front of her home in September 2022.

Prosecutors told jurors in opening arguments Nov. 7 that Landaeta, 33, acted in vengeance when he killed Karina Castro, 27, of San Carlos — the mother of his one-year-old child. They described the bloody scene around noon on Sept. 8, 2022, in front of an apartment complex where Castro was found in the street in pajamas, beheaded by multiple strikes from a sharp weapon.

Witnesses sobbed on the stand during the prosecution's case, including women who had been walking in the neighborhood when they saw Landaeta argue with and then viciously attack Castro.

San Mateo County's Hall of Justice in Redwood City, Calif. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)

Ahead of the final day of arguments Friday, Castro’s father Martin Castro said outside the courtroom that he will be grateful to see the trial end after having driven from Vallejo every day with his mother and family friends. He said he has been disappointed in how the trial has been handled, and claimed his family has faced harassment from Landaeta’s mother. 

“I hope they give him the maximum sentence they possibly can, so he never sees the light of day,” Castro said. 

He said the family is struggling to grieve during the proceedings, saying, “We just stay close. We’ve all gotten much closer since this has happened.”

Landaeta pleaded not guilty to the charge of murder in May, after psychiatric evaluations concluded he was competent to stand trial. Deputy District Attorney Josh Keckley-Stauffer reminded the jury of that fact in closing arguments before San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Lisa Novak, saying Landaeta lied about his mental state and behaved “childlike and attention seeking” in custody.

Multiple doctors said they found no signs of mental illness in Landaeta, despite his insistence that he heard voices. Prosecutors said he stopped taking his medication before the trial and even told a jail worker that he intended to be found incompetent to avoid standing trial. 

Keckley-Stauffer said when Landaeta suddenly agreed to take the stand and answer questions on Nov. 13, he stopped responding to questions by closing his eyes and lowering his head, but began behaving normally once the jury left the room. He then refused to return to the proceedings.

“What choice does he have but to hide his guilt in the recesses of his mind?” Keckley-Stauffer said, pointing out Landaeta’s words of anger toward Castro more than a year later. He noted that Landaeta denied killing Castro on the stand, a turnaround from previous statements including in a recorded conversation in October where he said “I fucking killed the bitch.”

Family members cried as Keckley-Stauffer played recordings of the defendant’s voice in phone calls recorded in October, accusing his father of being on Castro’s side. They grieved as he described Landaeta’s act of killing Castro, that “brutalized her body because of anger.”

“This is a case you’ve all heard 100 times. This is an act of domestic violence,” he said. He told the jury they should convict Landaeta of first-degree murder on the grounds of express malice.

In his closing arguments, Landaeta’s attorney Robert Cummings maintained that Landaeta suffers from schizophrenia-induced paranoia and has a “sick mind.” He noted messages scraped from Landaeta’s Snapchat and Instagram of exchanges between him and Castro as evidence for Landaeta’s reasons for confronting her with a sword in his car, and blamed Castro for the slurs she lobbed at Landaeta.

Cummings questioned the eyewitnesses’ judgment and brought up Landaeta’s claim that Castro was holding a black knife before he grabbed the sword and attacked her, although such a knife was never found. He said Landaeta’s state of fear drove him to kill Castro in front of others, not a premeditated plan of action. 

“This is a tragedy that should never have happened,” Cummings said. “He came to hopefully deescalate, to try to calm things down.” 

Landaeta has been held without bail since March. He waived his right to be in the courtroom during the trial last week, before agreeing to testify Nov. 13. He has since refused to return to court and was admonished by the attorneys and Novak in absentia Friday. 

The jury is expected to deliberate Monday and Tuesday next week.

Follow @nhanson_reports
Categories / Criminal, Regional, Trials

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.