A Bakersfield man was sentenced Wednesday to life in prison in the death of his 22-month-old stepson following a contentious, three-day hearing in which defense counsel alleged prosecutorial and juror misconduct and slammed the trial judge for what it said was failure to ensure a fair trial for its client.
"No one can refute that the appearance of unfairness has occurred throughout this trial," attorney Kyle J. Humphrey said.
The judge, Gary T. Friedman, cited case law in an hour-long response Wednesday afternoon denying the defense's motion for a new trial and refuting allegations that 36-year-old Carlos Laguna was deprived of his right to a fair trial.
Friedman then sentenced Laguna to 25 years to life in prison for killing Joaquin Ramirez Jr. The judge noted the child suffered horrific injuries including a torn liver and a pancreas nearly torn in half as a result of two or three blows to the abdomen.
The child's father, Joaquin Ramirez Sr., wrote a letter to the court stating the day he found out his son had died was the worst of his life.
He described Joaquin as a "chunky baby" who loved food and enjoyed sitting in shallow water during fishing trips. Now, he wrote, there are no more fishing trips, visits to the park, holidays and birthdays to celebrate together.
"You murdered my son and have shown no remorse or any feelings at all," Ramirez wrote in a statement directed at Laguna.
Laguna's family said it is sticking by his side and has no doubt of his innocence.
His brother-in-law, Javier D. Aviles, 37, said he's watched Laguna around children and knows he would never harm a child. He said if Laguna were free he would allow him around his own children.
"Kern County put an innocent man behind bars again," Aviles said.
Humphrey, Laguna's attorney along with Jared Thompson, prefaced his comments Wednesday morning by telling the court it might take offense over what he was about to say.
Humphrey then proceeded to lambaste Friedman over what he said was a lack of regard for defense counsel's arguments. He said he could tell from the first day of the hearing the motion for a new trial didn't stand a chance of being granted.
"My great fear is that the court had its mind made up before we got here," Humphrey said.
He asked the judge to put his ruling in writing and cite the cases he used in making his decision.
In making his argument, Humphrey noted his client will spend the rest of his days "living in a box" while his children and grandchildren try to go on with their lives without him.
Friedman, speaking slowly and calmly, said he would make his ruling orally and would cite cases relevant to his decision. He told Humphrey he has always had the utmost respect for him, and trusted the attorney accorded him that same respect.
When asked for her response to Humphrey's allegations, prosecutor Gina Pearl said she found it "completely ridiculous" to argue Laguna did not receive a fair trial. The predicament Laguna found himself in, she said, was no fault of the judge.
"The defendant will be in a box for the rest of his life because he murdered his stepson," she said.
Pearl and defense counsel clashed often, both at trial and during the sentencing hearing. She expressed frustration in responding to each of the dozens of allegations defense counsel made, arguing each one had already been dealt with at trial.
The defense alleged, among other things, that Pearl denigrated defense counsel and improperly questioned witnesses; a juror engaged in misconduct by posting a comment on a news media Facebook page discussing Laguna's punishment shortly after the verdict was read; and that the investigating officer in the case was asked to serve as a bailiff or guard in the courtroom for brief periods of time, prejudicing its client.
Pearl responded to those accusations in a strong voice, at times pounding her finger on the desk as she spoke. Defense counsel on multiple occasions accused her of yelling and what Humphrey described as "vocal misconduct."
"Can the record reflect counsel has raised her voice once again?" he asked after one of Pearl's responses.
Pearl said she didn't raise her voice, she simply spoke into the microphone.
Friedman stepped in more than once, asking counsel on both sides to be respectful and not interrupt each other.
Laguna was convicted in March of second-degree murder and assault of a child under 8 resulting in death.
His stepson died on Sept. 22, 2010, in the 1800 block of Ming Avenue. Prosecutors filed charges two years later, and Laguna was taken into custody at a residence in the 5100 block of Jonah Street.
Prosecutors say the child suffered the fatal injuries within a two-hour span the previous afternoon when he was alone with Laguna. The defense argued the boy's father was to blame for his death.
Humphrey said afterward his client maintains his innocence and is hopeful his conviction will be overturned.