On November 1, 1997, two groups of teenagers had a confrontation in Vacaville, California, that resulted in the smashing of a window of 19-year-old David Moreno’s
car. The following night, Moreno and two friends, 18-year-old Justin Pacheco and 17-year-old Jerry English, drove around looking for the teens they had clashed with the night before.
They stopped when they saw 16-year-old Chad O’Connell, one of the youths from the night before, along with some of O’Connell’s friends. Moreno, Pacheco and English got out intending to fight O’Connell and the others and a brawl erupted. During the fight, O’Connell pulled out an 11-inch knife and stabbed English twice in the back. Moreno and Pacheco took English to a hospital and went home. English died not long after.
Police were summoned and quickly tracked down O’Connell. He admitted he had stabbed English, but said he was acting in self-defense. He identified Moreno and Pacheco as being with English. On November 4, O’Connell was charged with possession of a weapon and was released. That same day Moreno and Pacheco were arrested and charged with murder under a rarely invoked California statute known as the Provocative Act Rule.
The statute allowed the state to file charges against someone for setting off a chain of events that leads to a crime.
The case engendered considerable controversy because the stabber, O’Connell, who was white, was allowed to plead guilty to the weapons charge for a sentence of probation, while Moreno and Pacheco, who were Hispanic, were charged with murder.
Moreno and Pacheco went on trial in the fall of 1998 in Solano County Superior Court. O’Connell testified that he stabbed English, who was not armed, in self-defense after English got out of the car and came running at him. He said Moreno and Pacheco got out of the car with pipes in their hands. O’Connell said that English came after him and one of O’Connell’s friends. He said that when English went after his friend, he stabbed English twice in the back.
On November 5, 1998, a jury convicted Moreno and Pacheco of murder. The following day, several jurors contacted the defense attorneys and claimed they were coerced into returning a guilty verdict. One juror said the juror next to her had held down her hands so that she couldn’t protest when the judge polled the jury and asked if they were in agreement.
Judge Luis Villarreal declared a mistrial and vacated the conviction. David Paulson, Solano County District Attorney, then sent a memo to his staff seeking reasons to make a motion to disqualify Villarreal from the second trial. A deputy district attorney who was not involved in the trial then leaked the memo to the media and was promptly fired.
Prior to the second trial, a different prosecutor was assigned to the case. In a meeting with defense attorneys, the prosecutor asked them if they had received a copy of the autopsy report that showed all of the wounds on English’s body. The defense attorneys, Barry Newman and Dan Healy, said the first prosecutor had not disclosed it to them.
The report showed that English had numerous defensive knife wounds in addition to the two stab wounds in the back.
During the retrial, the lawyers used the report to undermine O’Connell’s claim that he acted solely in self-defense. On February 10, 2000, the jury acquitted Moreno and Pacheco and they were released.
– Maurice Possley