Crime

Judge clears up legal issues for Monday’s hearing of Fresno soldier’s killing

A preliminary hearing for two Army National Guard soldiers who are charged with killing a fellow soldier 16 months ago in Fresno will start Monday as planned after prosecutors agreed to turn over potential evidence, a judge said Thursday.

Jacqueline Benavides Wills, 24, and Jessica Wills, 25, are charged with murder in the stabbing death of Brian Santos, 32, who was slain on New Year’s Day 2014. The two defendants contend they killed Santos in self-defense.

The preliminary hearing will determine whether there’s enough evidence to order the two defendants to stand trial.

Fresno County Superior Court Judge W. Kent Hamlin plans to start the preliminary hearing on Monday, but first he had to clear up some legal issues. One issue involved the defendants’ and Santos’ military records. The other issue dealt with a report written by an investigator with the District Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the defendants.

Prosecutor William “Billy” Terrence has the military records, but declined to turn them over to defense lawyers on Wednesday. But after he and defense attorneys Michael Aed, Serita Rios and Amy Guerra conferred privately with Hamlin on Thursday, Hamlin said Terrence has agreed to turn over the records before the preliminary hearing.

Hamlin also said Terrence plans to ask his investigator, Shari Hall, to rewrite a report of her recent interview with Tessia Laulu, who was Santos’ girlfriend. Laulu was celebrating New Year’s with Santos and the two defendants when Santos was killed, court records say.

Defense lawyers had complained that Hall’s report lacked details.

In addition, Hamlin said defense lawyers can introduce Santos’ prior domestic violence conviction. The conviction is relevant, defense lawyers said, because the two defendants were coming to the aid of Laulu, who told police that a drunken Santos had assaulted her.

Lawyers say the killing is a tragedy because Benavides Wills and Wills, who are married, and Santos and Laulu served together in the Army National Guard and were friends.

According to Fresno police, the foursome went out together to celebrate New Year’s Eve. The night turned deadly when an altercation between Santos and Laulu erupted about 2 a.m. outside the defendants’ home on Shields Avenue, east of Clovis Avenue, police said.

Wills told police she stabbed Santos after he allegedly attacked his girlfriend. Benavides Wills was arrested after an autopsy showed that two different weapons were used to kill Santos, police said.

In court papers, defense lawyers say Santos started a physical altercation with Laulu inside the house, then attacked her outside. He was so enraged, he took off his shirt, pinned his girlfriend to the ground and challenged the defendants to a fight, the lawyers said.

At the time of his death, Santos’ blood alcohol was .21, or nearly three times the legal limit of .08 to drive, court records show. The court records say Benavides Wills made two 911 calls and Wills performed CPR on Santos.

If convicted of murder, Benavides Wills and Wills faces life in prison. They are free on $50,000 bail each after a judge ruled that they are neither a danger to the community nor a flight risk.

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