Jorge Benvenuto has lost his bid to withdraw his guilty plea in the killing of Zach Snarr and now faces life in prison without parole.
Benvenuto, 20, pleaded guilty Oct. 15 to shooting Snarr in the head on Aug. 28, 1996, while Snarr and a friend, Yvette Rodier Evans, were photographing the moon at Little Dell Reservoir. Rodier was wounded. She was also shot in the head,On Oct. 15, Benvenuto agreed to a plea bargain offered by prosecutors, pleading guilty to murder and accepting a life without parole term to escape a possible death sentence.
But at his sentencing a month later, Benvenuto asked for a new lawyer and said he had been coerced into the plea bargain.
Attorney Robert Booker argued last Friday to 3rd District Judge Anne M. Stirba that Benvenuto was suffering from depression Oct. 15 and had a history of mental illness, something his court-appointed public defenders should have brought to the judge's at-ten-tion.
On the stand, Benvenuto said he was depressed in the days preceding the plea-change hearing, consulting with relatives and his attorneys about what to do.
If Stirba had asked him that day if he was depressed he would have told her so, Benvenuto testified, but said the judge didn't ask him.
"I believe it did," he said when Booker asked him if his depression played a part in his decision to plead guilty.
But Prosecutor Robert Stott read several exchanges between Benvenuto and Stirba from the hearing transcript, including questions about whether he was thinking clearly, whether anyone had coerced or pushed him into the plea bargain, and if he understood what he was doing that day.
"Yes, nobody forced me" to agree to the plea bargain, Ben-venuto agreed, also agreeing he'd consulted extensively with his family and attorneys before pleading guilty.
Former defense attorney James Valdez said his team was worried about Benvenuto's mental state and had evaluations done. They found he suffered from minor depression but was competent, Val-dez said, eliminating mental illness as a defense.
In her ruling, Stirba said the issue is not whether Benvenuto was depressed that day but whether his agreement to the plea proffered was voluntary, knowing, and intelligently done.
Anyone facing the death penalty and in Benvenuto's circumstances will suffer some depression, Stirba said, and "mere depression alone wouldn't have rendered the plea as involuntary, unknowing, or unintelligently entered".
Stirba said she has been observing Benvenuto at his court hearings, including the Oct. 15 plea change and his demeanor appears the same: Quiet but understanding and participating in the proceedings.
After the hearing, Sy Snarr, mother of victim Zach Snarr, said justice has been done. She called the delay frustrating, noting Benvenuto is now pleading for his life, something her son didn't have a chance to do.
Rodier, in tears, also said she's satisfied with the judge's ruling.