Questions about how deputies from the Wake County Sheriff’s Department interrogated a teen during a murder investigation have reopened a homicide case that highlighted a gang culture in Garner.
A three-judge state Court of Appeals panel issued a ruling Tuesday that vacates sentences for life without parole handed down to Jonathan Santillan, a teen convicted in Wake County Superior Court on Aug. 28, 2015, of two counts of first-degree murder.
The appellate judges did not order a new trial. Instead they sent the case back to Superior Court with more questions about former Wake County Judge Paul Gessner’s decision about interrogation procedures used by Wake County deputies before placing Santillan under arrest.
The charges are related to a violent morning that happened on Jan. 5, 2013, when a couple was discovered dead in their Garner home in what prosecutors described as the unintended victims in gang retaliation.
Jose Samuel Flores Mendoza and his wife, Maria Saravia Mendoza, were found dead after gunmen sprayed gunfire throughout their Colonial Drive duplex near Garner.
The shooters, prosecutors contend, went to the Mendoza home thinking they were at a duplex where a rival gang member lived. The gang member had moved out about a year earlier, and the Mendozas moved in afterward.
The Mendozas’ younger son, Jacob, only 3 years old at the time, survived the violence and now lives with family members.
The couple also had an older son, Jorge, a teen left to navigate life without his parents.
Santillan was 15 at the time of the Mendoza killings.
Because of his age he was ineligible for capital punishment. His age also meant that a judge could not automatically sentence him to life without parole.
The appeals court judges weighed in on the sentencing, only to say that it should be reconsidered in light of their questions about whether Santillan had talked willingly with Wake County investigators without a lawyer present.
The jury of six men and six women who deliberated Santillan’s fate were shown videotape of an eight-hour interview with Santillan after his arrest.
Investigators had many questions for the teen, some of which were about whether he would sign a waiver to have a lawyer, parent or guardian present as he was read his rights.
Jeff Cutler, the Raleigh attorney who represented Santillan at trial, tried to suppress the interview evidence. He argued that investigators used improper tactics when questioning the then 15-year-old.
The video played during the trial showed Santillan becoming upset with his interviewers a number of times. On more than one occasion, they left Santillan alone in the room with his hands cuffed and a water bottle on a small table. While the investigators were away, Santillan paced. His ball cap was turned backward. He occasionally tugged at his black T-shirt, with the slogan “Self made” on the front and “Self paid” on the back.
On one occasion, Santillan asked for a lawyer. But then after spending time by himself, pacing and sitting, Santillan knocked on the door to get the attention of investigators.
He eventually signed an agreement waiving his rights.
Prosecutors argued that Santillan willingly talked with Wake County deputies and that they ended their interrogation after he asked to have an attorney.
Gessner, the former Wake County Superior Court judge who left the bench on Dec. 31, 2015, to take a job as an attorney for the Wake County Sheriff’s Department, did not provide as full a description in his ruling to allow the interrogation evidence as the appellate judges wanted.
Omitted from Gessner’s order were some of the back-and-forth between Santillan and the investigators.
“The court’s findings do not expressly acknowledge that Santillan later invoked his right to counsel, at which point the officer ceased questioning him and left the room,” the appellate judges wrote in their ruling.
“But that finding can be inferred from the court’s next finding, which notes that ‘[a]pproximately 40 minutes later, [Santillan] knocked on the door of the interview room and asked to speak with the investigators again. Investigator Scott Barefoot returned to the room with Chief Richard Johnson . . . and they explained that they cannot talk with him anymore unless he waives his rights. They then go through another juvenile rights waiver form . . . which [Santillan] also signed.”
Because the trial court record is incomplete, the appellate judges state they cannot “meaningfully review the trial court’s legal conclusions.”
The judges ordered Wake County Superior Court to hold a new hearing about whether evidence gained from the deputies’ interview with Santillan should have been allowed.
Additionally, the Superior Court failed to list evidence to support its findings for sentences of life without parole.
Gessner held a sentencing hearing for Santillan four days after a jury found him guilty of two courts of first-degree murder and several other charges related to the shooting deaths of the Mendozas.
Santillan’s mother offered the judge an account of her son’s childhood – including details about suicide attempts, hospitalizations, witnessing shootings at a young age and a father who went missing – to make an appeal that her teenager have the possibility for parole.
Santillan’s mother said her son “went from a good little church boy to a very depressed child.”
Cutler argued that having no chance for parole was “a serious, and, some would say, a cruel punishment for a juvenile.”
He promised to appeal the sentence and the trial verdict.
It was not immediately clear which judge will handle the proceedings since Gessner no longer is on the bench.