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For a murder he committed as a 17-year-old, Juan Jose Barrientos faces the prospect of spending most — and possibly all — of his adult life in prison.
After two hours of deliberations Thursday, a jury convicted Barrientos, now 22, of first-degree murder and robbery with a deadly weapon in the December 2008 killing of a migrant worker. Barrientos, who was a Lely High School junior at the time of the killing, faces up to life in prison, though a judge could hand down a lighter punishment at Barrientos’ sentencing May 7.
Prosecutors contended that Barrientos stabbed and killed 51-year-old Roberto Avalos-Jasso in a robbery at Six L’s Farm in East Naples. In interviews with deputies, Barrientos said co-defendant Jesus Rene Garza, who was 18 at the time, planned and executed the murder. Prosecutors argued the evidence showed Barrientos was a willing participant.
"They watched Roberto Avalos-Jasso’s life slip away while they stood there, callously waiting for him to die," Assistant State Attorney Mara Marzano said during closing arguments. "Neither made a move at any time to help this man, because that was their plan all along — to rob this man and kill him."
Barrientos, clad in a tan suit and light blue shirt, his dark hair closely cropped, showed no outward emotion as the verdict was read.
Florida law requires a mandatory life sentence or execution for killers convicted of first-degree murder. But because Barrientos had not yet turned 18 at the time of the killing, he can’t be executed and a judge can’t automatically issue a life sentence, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.
Barrientos’ sentencing will be the first in Collier County impacted by a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Miller v. Alabama, which found mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile killers unconstitutional. The Miller v. Alabama ruling did not, however, preclude a judge from handing down a life term after consideration of mitigating factors such as age.
Marzano wouldn’t say Thursday whether the state will seek the maximum life in prison penalty.
Barrientos’ lawyer, John McGowan, said he’s hopeful mitigating factors will benefit his client.
"He hasn’t been in the juvenile system and he hasn’t had any type of crimes" before the conviction, McGowan said.
Most of Avalos-Jasso’s family is in Mexico, where prosecutors haven’t been able to reach them during the legal process, Marzano said. A local family has been receiving information about the case, but Marzano said she couldn’t comment on their level of satisfaction with the prosecution of Barrientos and Garza.
In deliberating the murder case, jurors had two options for convicting Barrientos: they could have found he stabbed and killed Avalos-Jasso, or that he actively participated in the robbery that precipitated the killing.
Prosecutors said stab wounds and blood evidence — as well as Barrientos’ confession, which was suppressed pre-trial and never heard by jurors — led them to believe Barrientos stabbed Avalos-Jasso. Either way, prosecutors said, Barrientos never extricated himself from the robbery plan, making him legally culpable.
"There’s no reasonable doubt they were both in on this up to their eyeballs," Assistant State Attorney Lisa Mead said.
Garza has already pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of second-degree murder, receiving a 50-year prison sentence. Soon, Barrientos will join him.
"I think he’s been OK so far," McGowan said of his client. "It’s going to be in the future that we’ll try to get him through this."