A Weldon man whose 2013 murder conviction was overturned after an appellate court ruled the trial judge committed prejudicial error in refusing to allow a hearsay witness statement into evidence was sentenced Tuesday to 11 years in prison in the beating death of his estranged girlfriend's boyfriend.
Danny Leon Mathis, 56, will receive credit for time served and has roughly 2 1/2 years left in state prison, his lawyer said afterward. Mathis pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter last month.
Defense lawyer Greg Mitts said after sentencing that Mathis killed 22-year-old Ruben Torres in self-defense. There were witnesses to the incident, but in the intervening six years they've "scattered to the four winds," he said.
Mitts said he made a motion to dismiss the case due to violation of due process since it's not Mathis' fault the witnesses can no longer be found, and he believes if Mathis had been convicted at a second trial the conviction would have again been overturned.
Prosecutor Gina Pearl was "very reasonable" in reaching a plea agreement in the case, Mitts said. The 11-year prison term is a good result considering Mathis had previously been serving 25 years to life, he said.
Pearl said she felt the voluntary manslaughter plea was appropriate after a review of the evidence and the appellate court decision.
While Mitts found the new sentence reasonable, the family of Torres said in a letter read to the court that the "horrible, despicable" Mathis should never see the outside of a prison. The letter, read by a victim advocate with the District Attorney's Office, described how terrified Torres must have been as Mathis pummeled him to death.
"Ruben was far from an angel, but did he deserve to die this way?" the letter said. "No, he didn't."
Mathis killed Torres on Jan. 29, 2012, bound him with rope and stuffed him in the trunk of a car. He was on his way to get rid of the body when the car broke down, according to court documents.
The car was towed to a friend's house, where the body was discovered a couple of days later.
Questioned at the Kern County Sheriff's Kern Valley substation, Mathis admitted to killing Torres but said it was in self-defense, according to court documents.
He told investigators his ex-girlfriend, Chasidy Wilhite, had called him to her home to "slap Torres around" because he was stealing from her. But when Mathis showed up, Torres confronted him with a shotgun, according to Mathis' statement in the documents.
Mathis said he "freaked out" upon having a gun pointed at him, and beat Torres more severely than he'd intended, killing him.
Convicted the following year of first-degree murder, Mathis had faced the prospect of spending the rest of his life behind bars until the 5th District Court of Appeal overturned his conviction in 2016.
In its ruling, the appellate court said Mathis' public defender had wanted to introduce testimony from a man who was the "on-and-off lover" of Chasidy Wilhite. That man, Jose Pineda, was prepared to testify that Wilhite had told him she set up and assisted in the killing of Torres.
The trial judge refused to allow Pineda's testimony into evidence, and the appellate court said the judge applied the wrong legal standards in denying it.
"It is reasonably probable the outcome of the proceedings would have been more favorable to (Mathis), if Pineda's testimony, as set forth in the defense's offer of proof, was presented to the jury," the court wrote in its decision.