WALLA WALLA — The state Court of Appeals has granted a new trial for a man serving life in prison for murdering a rival gang member and shooting at other people in a 2011 confrontation in an alley in the west end of Walla Walla.
In an 11-page opinion filed Thursday, a three-judge panel based in Spokane ruled Benito Gomez was not provided a public trial because entry into the Walla Walla County Superior Court courtroom during the proceedings nearly two years ago was closed after court sessions began.
The Walla Walla County Superior Court jury in Benito Gomez’s trial convicted him on June 12, 2012, of second-degree murder in the May 2011 shooting death of 20-year-old Julio Cesar Martinez, and of six counts of first-degree assault for shooting at other people in the alley and in an adjacent residence.
The panel heard evidence that Gomez and three fellow gang members met in the area of Sprague Avenue and Myrtle Street shortly before 6 p.m. May 17, 2011, and decided to fight rival members because the rivals had moved into their area.
Gomez, now 21, and his gang members confronted the rivals in an alley in the 300 block of Myrtle Street, where Gomez gunned down Martinez and fired at Joseph Dejesus and Miguel Saucedo, who fled into their apartment at 331 Myrtle.
Two other victims who are not gang members — Jessica Glasby, who lived at the apartment house, and her visitor, David Cloyd — also were in the alley when the shots were fired.
Two additional victims — Roberto Cuevas and Patricia Nelson — were in a different apartment at 331 Myrtle into which a bullet was fired.
No one but Martinez was hit. The weapon never was found.
Judge Donald W. Schacht sentenced Gomez to a prison term of 114 years and 10 months, which is the high end of the standard range — including firearms enhancements — that Gomez faced.
Gomez maintained his innocence.
The panel wrote that then-Superior Court Judge Donald W. Schacht was “sincerely concerned about courtroom safety,” but did not weigh five factors on the record, which is required to close trial proceedings to the public.
Schacht has since retired.
Prosecuting Attorney Jim Nagle said in an interview Thursday his office now has 30 days to decide whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court. He maintains the court sessions were open, and sometimes quite full of spectators who arrived on time.
If neither side asks for further review, the appeals court will issue a mandate finalizing its decision. Gomez, 21, now serving time at the Washington State Penitentiary, then would be returned to court for appointment of a new attorney and setting of a new trial to begin within 60 days.
At Gomez’s June 2012 trial, Schacht addressed his courtroom security concerns, pointing out that allegations surrounding the murder and assaults revolved around gang activity that can provoke violence.
But in other matters, Schacht — unlike other local Superior Court judges past and present — routinely would not allow entry to courtroom spectators if they were late.
In fact, he said regarding Gomez: “There’s no difference in security for this trial than any other trial ... We continue to have rules of procedure where people have to be on time for proceedings here. We do not allow people to come into the courtroom after the court is in session for not only security reasons, but as well as the distraction that that causes when people come in.”
But the appeals-court panel pointed out Thursday the federal and state constitutions provide a criminal defendant the right to a public trial and, considering that importance, “tardiness is a minor annoyance.”
The judges rejected prosecution arguments that the closure to latecomers was a security measure ensuring courtroom safety, decorum and order.
The opinion concluded that the state Supreme Court requires five factors be considered on the record before closing trial proceedings to the public.
They include a showing of a compelling interest, that any curtailing of open access must be the least restrictive means available, and the public interest must be considered.
Schacht did not weigh the factors on the record, therefore, “... we must reverse and remand for a new trial because the error is structural, presumptively prejudicial, and never harmless,” according to the opinion.
Nagle, who has been with the local prosecutor’s office for nearly three decades, told the Union-Bulletin this is the first local murder case he recalls that has been returned for a new trial.
The county’s costs for murder trials are significant, but because several budgets are tapped, Nagle didn’t have an estimated dollar figure.
A new trial for Gomez isn’t a certainty, however, because Nagle could win an appeal if he decides to pursue one.
Also, should Nagle be inclined to make an offer, it’s possible Gomez could enter into an agreement in which he pleads guilty to a lesser number and degree of assault charges against him. Before his June 2012 trial, he rejected such an offer from Nagle, who would have recommended a sentence of about 251/2 years.