LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The California Supreme Court refused today to review the case of a gang member convicted of the August 2015 Venice boardwalk shooting death of a young man who was hoping to break into the music business.
Francisco C. Guzman is serving a 93-year-to-life sentence in state prison for the Aug. 30, 2015, killing of 26-year-old Jascent Warren and the attempted murder of another man, who was wounded. In an Oct. 17 ruling, a three-justice panel from California's 2nd District Court of Appeal found that the evidence presented to the jury of Guzman's guilt was ``overwhelming.''
The panel noted in its 30-page ruling that the eyewitness testimony at Guzman's trial showed he fired his gun on the boardwalk, killing Warren and injuring another man -- neither of whom were armed.
The appellate court justices added that ``Guzman clearly and unmistakably connected the shootings with his gang membership and his intent to promote the gang.'' Guzman was convicted in March 2019 of one count each of first-degree murder, attempted murder and possession of a firearm by a felon. Jurors also found true gang and gun allegations.
Video surveillance from two cameras at a nearby cafe captured the shooting. Deputy District Attorney John McKinney told the jury during the trial that Guzman was a gang member looking to protect his turf, while defense attorney Garrett Zelen maintained that his client was only trying to defend himself from a potentially vicious attack. Warren -- known to friends as ``Shakespeare'' because of his way with words -- was shot to death around 2 a.m. Aug. 30, 2015, on Ocean Front Walk at Dudley Avenue.
A key prosecution witness was Sris Sinnathamby, a 58-year-old real estate investor who once owned and still held an interest at the time of the trial in the Cadillac Hotel on the boardwalk where the shooting occurred. Sinnathamby -- who was given immunity for his testimony -- was arrested at the scene and charged with murder, roughly a month before police arrested Guzman. The men were co-defendants at a preliminary hearing where charges were dismissed against Sinnathamby due to insufficient evidence.
The two men were near-strangers who ended up together that night by coincidence, McKinney told jurors. The prosecutor characterized Venice as a place where artists, wealthy residents, gang members and homeless people are all part of the mix. The hotel owner was at a local bar with three friends at closing time. When he walked out, unable to call for a ride due to a dead cell phone, Guzman offered them a ride. Because he recognized the man from the bar and around the neighborhood, Sinnathamby and his friends jumped in, according to the prosecutor.
When the SUV stopped at the Cadillac Hotel, Guzman got out and started talking to a homeless man sleeping in front of a restaurant across the street -- also owned at the time by Sinnathamby -- while the hotel owner went to grab his keys from his own car, McKinney said. Guzman threatened the homeless man with a gun and told him to leave, and when Sinnathamby returned, he told a second man to move away from the entrance to the hotel, the prosecutor said.
The two homeless men began shouting and Sinnathamby and Guzman were drawn into an argument with more people down on Ocean Front Walk. ``Mr. Warren and his friends were minding their own business when Mr. Guzman came along and brought violence into their world,'' McKinney told the jury.
Guzman fired four shots, a bullet hit a man in the leg and Warren got upset. The prosecutor said a video clip taken on someone's phone recorded Sinnathamby saying, ``Calm down, calm down,'' and Warren responding, ``You're telling me to calm down? He's the one shooting bullets.'' At least one witness told police they heard Guzman say, ``This is my neighborhood'' and then name his gang, according to the prosecutor, who said Guzman got into the gang life about a decade earlier.
Sinnathamby never felt threatened by the people on the boardwalk and was standing between Warren and Guzman, trying to defuse the situation, according to McKinney. Warren tried to knock the .40-caliber semi-automatic out of Guzman's hand and then the defendant fired again, he said. At least three bullets struck Warren, who ran off and then collapsed nearby, McKinney said.
Guzman fled the scene, while Sinnathamby stayed behind and was attacked by two or three people from the crowd. ``From their point of view, it looked like he sicced this guy on him. They thumped him. They assaulted him pretty badly,'' the prosecutor said, telling jurors that Sinnathamby suffered head injuries that required 16 staples to close.
Zelen said the men who attacked Sinnathamby, beating him to ``within an inch of his life,'' had posed a grave danger to his client, who ``acted in self-defense and in defense of others.'' He said Guzman was ``someone who may have been in a gang at one time and had to defend his life ... He is a human being. He has a right to defend himself.''
The defense attorney said the situation got out of hand and led his client to fire over the heads of a crowd in an attempt to keep the peace. ``Everything was fine until a crowd started to form ... threatening, yelling and potentially attacking,'' Zelen said. ``This case isn't about gangs. It's about a homeless population that is made up in some part by mentally ill people.''
The other man cited as a victim in the criminal complaint was struck by a ricocheting bullet, according to the attorney, who said the shooting amounted to ``voluntary manslaughter at the worst.'' Guzman only fired at Warren when Warren ran at him, and anything else is ``complete fabrication,'' he said. ``At that moment, Mr. Guzman was in fear for his life.''