A jury has recommended that dad RODRIGO PANIAGUA Jr. be given the the death penalty for the brutal slaughter of his pregnant girlfriend and daughters, ages 3 and 6. It's the first time this county has imposed the death penalty in 13 years.
San Jose jury: Put man who killed family to death
By Tracey Kaplan
Posted: 07/01/2010 04:45:27 PM PDT
Updated: 07/01/2010 10:27:39 PM PDT
After enduring testimony about the grisly way Rodrigo Paniagua Jr. slaughtered his family, a Santa Clara County jury today took the rare step of voting for his execution — the first time a local panel has imposed the death penalty in 13 years.
The jury of nine women and two men took 21/2 days to agree on the ultimate punishment, rejecting an impassioned argument by defense attorney Traci Owen emphasizing Paniagua's lousy childhood and his sisters' pleas that his life be spared. In early June, the same jury took less than two hours to convict Paniagua of arson and four first-degree murders.
Paniagua crept into the bedroom where his pregnant girlfriend and young daughters were sleeping in October 2005 and stabbed them multiple times as they struggled to fend him off. He then set their bodies on fire and went outside and smoked a cigarette. For years beforehand, he had terrorized his family, blackening girlfriend Leticia Chavez's eye and threatening to kill her, slapping 3-year-old AnaLisa in the face and belting 6-year-old Adrina.
As the verdicts were read to a hushed courtroom filled with the victims' relatives and lawyers eager to learn the outcome of the rare capital case, Paniagua had no visible reaction. But Chavez's mother broke out into loud sobs, and a juror dabbed at her eyes with a tissue, as seven armed sheriff's deputies stood guard in case anyone lost control.
Joins death row
None of the jurors could be immediately reached for comment. But legal observers said the jury was likely swayed by the particularly violent way the little girls died. They noted that Scott Peterson, who killed his wife and unborn child, also got the death penalty in a familial case that involved fewer victims.
Paniagua, 33, will join about 700 other condemned killers in California on death row. However, extensive legal challenges are likely to delay his execution date for some 20 years. Owens had asked for a mistrial because two jurors appeared to be nodding off at one point and because of an emotional outburst by Chavez's relatives.
The last time local prosecutors persuaded a jury to impose the death penalty was in 1997, when three Nuestra Familia gang members — James "Huevo" Trujeque, Herminio "Spankio" Serna and Bobby Lopez — were sentenced to death for multiple killings.
Currently, county prosecutors have only one other capital case pending — that of Melvin Forte, who is charged with kidnapping, raping and fatally shooting Ines Sailer in January 1981. Forte is currently serving life in prison on a murder conviction out of San Francisco. He became a suspect in Sailer's death after a positive DNA hit in 2006.
In light of Thursday's Paniagua verdict, prosecutors also are all but certain to seek the death penalty in an upcoming trial against Samuel Corona for allegedly stomping 6-year-old Oscar Jimenez Jr. to death.
Outside the Hall of Justice, Chavez's relatives expressed gratitude to the jury and praised prosecutor Matt Braker. The family was split over the death penalty, but united against allowing Paniagua to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life without parole.
"My daughter and my grandchildren didn't get a choice, so why should he?" Chavez's mother, Dorothy Gutierrez, said. "We're happy now; our girls can finally rest in peace."
The killings have been so painful for Chavez's family that many of her relatives remain in therapy, including the teenage cousin staying with her at the time of the killings, who woke up to find the house on fire and the little girls slain.
Chavez's uncle, Robert Gutierrez, said Chavez was exposed to domestic violence at an early age, which may have normalized the behavior and blinded her to the possible outcome.
"She grew up with that thing: 'I have to stick with my guy,' '' he said of his late niece. He added that Chavez never thought Paniagua would kill her, even though he had threatened to five years earlier.
In an e-mail, Paniagua's sister Rachel said she will stand by her brother for the rest of their lives and praised attorney Owens for her stalwart defense. Rachel and another one of Paniagua's sisters, Cynthia, testified during the trial about severe abuse they and their brother endured at the hands of their father. The women said they were angry with Paniagua for the killings, but implored the jury to spare his life.
"My family and I were hopeful for a different outcome and prayed to God to help all affected by this tragedy," Rachel said in the e-mail. "The verdict does not change how we feel about our brother/son/Jr. or take away the pain we feel inside, and it definitely doesn't stop us from missing my Comadre Letty and my nieces. We wish they were all here, every day."