Two former Army National Guard soldiers were sentenced Tuesday to three years in prison for the stabbing death of an fellow soldier on New Year's Day 2014 during a domestic violence altercation in east-central Fresno.
Jessica Wills, 28, and her wife, Jacqueline Benavides Wills, 27, showed no emotion when Fresno Superior Court Judge Don Penner announced their punishment for killing Sgt. Brian Santos, 32.
The couple also showed no emotion and kept their backs turned toward Santos' family as they tearfully recalled a man who loved his family and lived by three principles — stand tall, be brave and take care of family.
"He made a mistake to believe you were his friends and comrades," Santos' mother, Carolina Lemeles, told the judge.
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The tribute to Santos, who did two overseas tours, was so touching that Judge Don Penner nearly cried when he recited the fact that Santos was stabbed multiple times and left in the road.
Jessica and Jacqueline, however, appeared unmoved. Instead of addressing the court and victim's family, they had their lawyers read their letters in which they apologized to Santos' family and said they took responsibility for their actions.
The sentence was part of a plea agreement struck on Jan. 11 when the couple said no contest to voluntary manslaughter. In exchange for their pleas, prosecutors dismissed a murder charge, which would have resulted in long prison terms for the pair if convicted.
Defense lawyers Michael Aed and Serita Rios contended Jessica and Jacqueline Wills stabbed a drunken Brian Santos in self-defense. Santos was fighting with his girlfriend, Tessia Laulu, a fellow soldier and close friend of Jessica and Jacqueline Wills, when the two defendants came to her aid, they said.
In pleading for leniency, Aed and Rios said their clients had no prior criminal records before the fatal stabbing.
Court records say Jessica Wills confessed to killing Santos, but Jacqueline Wills initially denied stabbing him. But a pathologist testified at a hearing in August 2015 that Santos was stabbed in the chest and bicep with one knife and three times in the back with another knife.
At Tuesday's hearing, Laulu told the judge that Santos didn't deserve to die. "He was a really great guy, your honor. He was a great man who loved everyone. He didn't have an ounce of evil."
Some of Santos' family members told Penner that they have forgiven the pair, saying that's what Brian Santos would have wanted. Others, like his mother, couldn't. "My heart is broken and my spirit is crushed," Lemeles said. "No matter what they serve in prison, it will never repair it."
Lemeles praised Judge Houry Sanderson, who in August 2015 ordered the pair to stand trial after hearing testimony at the defendants' preliminary hearing, In her ruling, Sanderson said there was probable cause to believe Jacqueline Wills committed a "cold and calculated attack on Santos" and therefore was guilty of first-degree murder. Sanderson said Jessica Wills likely committed second-degree murder because she made a rash decision and her actions were impulsive.
"The judge saw through their lies," Lemeles said of the two defendants.
Because the Santos' family was upset with the light prison sentence, prosecutor Gabriel Brickey explained the risks of going to trial. The defendants could have been found guilty of murder, Brickey said, but they also could have proven their claim of self-defense and be free.
Because of the unusual set of facts, a manslaughter conviction is a fair outcome, Brickey said. "It was an intentional killing in the heat of passion, which is imperfect self-defense" Brickey said.
The killing happened after a night of drinking.
Santos and Laulu drove from Southern California to attend a party at the home of Jacqueline Wills' brother. But sometime after midnight, Santos got extremely drunk.
In a taped interview, Laulu told police that Santos pushed her in the face and hit her at the party.
Because of the fight, Jessica and Jacqueline Wills, as well as Laulu and Santos, went to the defendants' condo on Shields Avenue near Fowler Avenue in east Fresno. At the condo, Santos got into a fight with his girlfriend again and Jessica Wills told him to leave. What happened next is in dispute.
The defendants contend Santos became so enraged that he took off his shirt, pinned his girlfriend to the ground and choked her. When the defendants intervened, Santos attacked them, they told police. After Santos collapsed and died in the street, Jessica Wills confessed to stabbing Santos, saying she feared for her life.
When police arrived at 2:12 a.m., officers discovered Jessica Wills giving Santos CPR on the roadway. He was pronounced dead shortly after an emergency medical crew arrived.
The defendants made two 911 calls. In the first 911 call, a calm Jacqueline Wills reported a drunken man chasing his girlfriend "like a crazy person," court records say. Jessica Wills can be heard in the background of the 911 call, saying she's going to stab Santos, Brickey said.
In the second 911 call to police, Jacqueline Wills, clearly angry, says to police dispatch: "You said you would be here, but you're not." She then tells the 911 operator she has a knife and is going to stab the man. Before the calls ends, Jacqueline Wills tells police dispatch: "Somebody else stabbed him."
But Brickey noted that photographs taken by police showed that neither the defendants nor Laulu suffered injuries or bruises.
In her ruling in August 2015, Sanderson said she didn't believe the defendants' account of the killing. Sanderson also ruled that the defendants didn't stab Santos in self-defense or in defense of another because he had stopped fighting with his girlfriend and he "had no weapon and was shoeless, sockless and shirtless."
Sanderson also said she was leery of Jessica Wills' account because she demonstrated to police that she used her right hand to stab Santos, even though she is left-handed. The judge said Jacqueline Wills first stood back and watched the events unfold. Then she made a conscious decision to get involved.
In her final summation, Sanderson said the evidence showed Jacqueline Wills was "frustrated, angry and outraged" at Santos because he had embarrassed her at her brother's party.