For nearly 20 months, Army National Guard solider Jessica Wills said that she stabbed fellow soldier Brian Santos in the chest in self-defense. Her wife, Jacqueline Benavides Wills, denied ever stabbing Santos.
Thursday, prosecutor Gabriel Brickey stunned a packed Fresno courtroom when he said some of the evidence suggests that Benavides Wills, who is also an Army National Guard soldier, actually delivered the fatal blow.
And the judge agreed with him.
Brickey made his comments during closing arguments of contentious, four-day preliminary hearing in which defense lawyers contend Wills was justified in stabbing a drunken, unarmed Santos because he was hitting his girlfriend, Tessia Laulu, a fellow soldier.
The hearing will determine whether Wills, 25, and Benavides Wills, 24, should stand trial on a charge of murder, the lesser charge of manslaughter, or no charges at all. Judge Houry Sanderson, who has listened to all of the evidence, said she will make her ruling Friday.
Santos, 32, was killed outside the couple’s home on Shields Avenue near Fowler Avenue in east Fresno during the early hours of New Year’s Day 2014.
In taped interviews with police, the two defendants contend Santos became so enraged, he took off his shirt, pinned his girlfriend to the ground and choked her. When Wills and Benavides Wills intervened, Santos attacked them, they told police. After Santos died, Wills quickly confessed to stabbing Santos, saying she feared for her life.
I’m not sure if I accept Wills’ representation that she made the fatal blow
Superior Court Judge Houry Sanderson
Benavides Wills made two 911 calls to report the incident.
Brickey said Thursday the 911 calls clearly show the two defendants intended to commit first-degree, premediated murder.
Police records show Benavides Wills called 911 at 1:42 a.m. and when police didn’t arrive, she called again at 2:05 a.m. When police arrived at 2:12 a.m., officers discovered Wills giving Santos CPR on the roadway. He was pronounced dead shortly after an emergency medical crew arrived.
In the first 911 call, Benavides Wills reports a drunken man is chasing his girlfriend “like a crazy person” and tells the operator that Santos wants to drive drunk. But Wills can also 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, Benavides Wills says, “You said you would be here, but you’re not.” She then tells the 911 operator that she has a knife and is going to stab the man.
Before the calls ends, Benavides Wills tells police dispatch: “Somebody else stabbed him.”
Brickey said the second 911 call also reveals that once Benavides Wills says “I’m going to stab him,” there’s a distinct grunt, then someone curses as if something went wrong. Laulu then starts screaming. “It’s the first time Tessia is heard screaming,” Brickey told the judge. Sanderson agreed with Brickey, saying she heard the same thing. But Sanderson went further. She said Benavides Wills blurts out: “And he’s bleeding.”
If Benavides Wills is contending she is not near Santos, “then how does she know he’s bleeding?” the judge said.
Sanderson also said, “I’m not sure if I accept Wills’ representation that she made the fatal blow.”
In her videotaped interview, Wills demonstrated to police detectives how she stabbed Santos in the chest and right bicep. She said she stabbed him after he grabbed her neck. Sanderson noted that Wills used her right hand to show how she stabbed Santos. But she told detectives she was left handed, the judge said.
No matter who stabbed Santos, all three women were in danger
Fresno defense lawyer Amy Guerra
Brickey said the coroner has ruled that Santos was killed with two knives. In the hearing, Dr. Venu Gopal testified that Santos was stabbed in the chest and bicep with one knife and stabbed in the back three times with another knife. Gopal said the only fatal wound was to Santos’ chest because the blade pierced his heart. Santos died within a few minutes of his stabbing, Gopal said.
At least three knives were found, including a bloody, 10-inch hunting knife near Santos’ body and a bloody, 15-inch knife inside the defendants’ home, hidden under a mattress.
Brickey argued that the knives prove the defendants premediated the killing of Santos. The15-inch knife is “meant to kill people,” he told the judge. But Santos’ DNA was not found on the 15-inch knife; it only had Wills’ DNA and her fingerprint, a crime scene techinician testified in the hearing.
Sanderson noted for the record that if the 15-inch knife was used to kill Santos, then why do photographs of the weapon show it didn’t appear to have blood on it. The judge also said Benavides Wills also told investigators that is her favorite knife.
Brickey said Benavides Wills told police that Wills told her to retrieve two knives from the condo. Benavides Wills told police she did get the two knives during the altercation, but she threw them over a fence. Sanderson said Benavides Wills’ statements appear to be “self-serving.”
To confuse the matter more, Sanderson said, Wills in her taped interview said she armed herself with a knife when Santos starting hitting his girlfriend.
Sanderson said the key issue is whether the use of deadly force was reasonable.
Lawyers Michael Aed and Amy Guerra, who represent Wills, argued that Wills had a good-faith belief that her life was in danger, so her action to herself with a knife was reasonable. Guerra also argued that “no matter who stabbed Santos, all three women were in danger.”
Lawyer Serita Rios, who represents Benavides Wills, asks the judge to dismiss the charges against her client because there is no evidence that she conspired with Wills to stab Santos and there was no physical evidence to show she stabbed Santos.
Though the evidence is murky, Sanderson made one thing clear before ending the arguments: the defendants’ credibility will weigh in her decision.