An appeals court has upheld the life-without-parole sentence of a young man who gunned down another man during a botched robbery in Cathedral City over $50 worth of marijuana.
Jacob Paul Winters, 23, was convicted in October 2016 of murder and being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm. Jurors also found true a special circumstance allegation of committing murder in commission of a robbery.
Hector Perez, 21, was found wounded in his car at 12:53 a.m. on March 21, 2016, near the area of Baristo Road and Date Palm Drive. He had been shot in the upper body and was conscious when rescuers arrived, but died at Desert Regional Medical Center about an hour later.
Deputy District Attorney Manny Bustamante said Perez was called to the parking lot of a Sonic Drive-In restaurant in Cathedral City to sell marijuana to a woman. But when he and a friend reached the scene, they saw two men — not the woman who called Perez, the prosecutor said.
Bustamante told jurors that Winters leveled a rifle at Perez’s friend while an unidentified accomplice, who is still at large, reached through the driver’s side window to take Perez’s keys out of the ignition. Perez then tried to move the rifle barrel away from his friend’s face, prompting Winters to shoot him, the prosecutor said.
“It was a simple plan, with a simple motive, that suddenly went horribly wrong,” Bustamante said.
Perez sped off from the parking lot to the area of Baristo Road and Date Palm Drive, where police found him after his friend called 911.
Winters was arrested three days after the shooting at his stepfather’s home on Avenida Quintana. He told police that he was sleeping at his mother’s home in Desert Hot Springs on the night of the shooting.
Defense attorney Arnold Lieman argued that Winters was never at the scene of the crime, and that the robbery motive made no sense, as Winters would not need to rob Perez to get marijuana. Winters was known to sell the drug and testified to that during the trial, Lieman said.
According to court records, Winters has a prior felony conviction for selling marijuana. Bustamante countered that they “weren’t looking to buy (marijuana.) They were looking to take what wasn’t theirs.”
Winters’ attorneys argued in the appeal that he did not act with the intent to kill, rendering his conviction and sentence “contrary to contemporary values, the laws of a majority of states, and do not serve the legitimate penological purposes of retribution and deterrence,” according to the appeals court’s opinion. The defense argued that convicting someone on the special-circumstance allegation without the intent to kill violated the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment.
A three-justice panel disagreed Monday in affirming Winters’ sentence, stating that whether or not he intended to kill Perez, pointing a rifle at him showed an “`utter indifference’ to the value of human life.” The panel ruled that precedent showed that even without the intent to kill, it has been held that defendants can be subject to the death penalty, as well as life sentences without the possibility of parole.