Trial begins for teens suspected in 2013 New Year’s Eve Santa Rosa slaying

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Testimony began Thursday in the trial of a 17-year-old Santa Rosa youth and a 20-year-old co-defendant charged with murder in a 2013 party slaying at a Santa Rosa apartment complex.

Joseph Mario Varela, who was 15 at the time, and Manuel Khiobouakham, then 19, face life in prison if convicted of shooting to death Damien Wadell Toney Jr., 20, during an altercation witnessed by other partygoers.

Some legal observers said the case, which will include evidence of self-defense, raises questions about the fairness of laws that allow minors to be tried and punished as adults. Studies suggest children under a certain age lack judgment and should not face the possibility of life behind bars.

“They don’t have a full maturity level at the age of 15 or 16,” said Public Defender Kathleen Pozzi, whose office is not involved in the trial. “The adolescent brain is clearly still developing. That brain takes risks and makes mistakes that a developed mind would not.”

In fact, a number of potential jurors were released from serving on the panel after expressing concerns about trying a minor.

This issue is likely to arise in an unrelated Sonoma County case in which three other youths, all under 18, are to be tried as adults in the June 2014 slaying of Windsor High School sophomore Nate Torres, 15.

Prosecutors also are trying several other minors accused of serious crimes ranging from shootings to assaults under laws that permit such treatment for a list of offenses.

Brian Staebell, chief deputy district attorney, said the half-dozen or so pending cases are a coincidence and don’t indicate a shift in policy about trying minors as adults.

He said the District Attorney’s Office is conservative in reaching decisions and considers factors such as juvenile criminal history, sophistication of the crime and past efforts to change behavior.

“We always look at the totality of the circumstances in making the call,” he said.

In opening statements Thursday, prosecutor Chris Honigsberg didn’t mention the age of either Varela or Khiobouakham, who sat dressed in street clothes and with close-cropped hair at the defense table.

Honigsberg said the night of the New Year’s Eve shooting at Redwood Apartments on Piner Road, the victim, Toney, was “drunk and belligerent” when he began yelling gang slogans that offended Varela and Khiobouakham, who he said were both members of a rival gang.

Toney got in a fight with Varela’s cousin, Paula Brisco, with whom Toney shares children, and was ejected from the party, Honigsberg said. The two defendants then armed themselves and shot Toney at least twice near the parking lot, killing him, Honigsberg said.

Later, he said Varela bragged to a friend that he had to “discipline somebody,” which Honigsberg said carries a special meaning in the gang world. He described Varela as being “cold and calculated” in police interviews and showing no emotion about what happened.

“This case is about disrespect, discipline and lies,” Honigsberg told the six-woman, six-man jury.

But Varela’s lawyer offered a different explanation, one that cast his young client as someone who stood up to a bully.

Attorney Colin Cooper said Varela, at the time a slightly built Piner High School sophomore, was the only person at the party to intervene when Toney began punching Varela’s cousin in a dispute over custody of their children.

Varela pulled the much bigger man off her and left the party, not wanting to continue fighting, Cooper said.

But Toney spotted Varela outside and charged at him, telling him, “I have something for you,” as he reached to his waistband, Cooper told jurors.

Fearing Toney was going to pull a gun, Varela shot Toney in the chest, he said.

“He had no other option,” Cooper said, “because Damien Toney was out of control that night, like he always was.”

Khiobouakham’s lawyer, Joe Stogner, said there was no evidence his client shot Toney with another gun. Though bullets from two different guns were recovered, a second weapon was never found and witness statements were unreliable, Stogner said.

The trial is expected to run for about two weeks before Judge Rene Chouteau.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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