>Terrebonne man apologizes to victim's family, saying he never intended to hurt anyone
Oct. 23, 2002 — Nobody questioned Mario Oscar Novela-Nunez's sincerity.
Nor did those in the courtroom believe after six hours of emotional testimony that the mild-mannered 23-year-old wanted to kill another man at the fairgrounds last spring when he picked a gun off the floor and used it to try to stop a brawl.
But Judge Daniel Ahern told the former Terrebonne resident Friday that he must pay for his tragic lapse in judgment, and reminded the young man that no apology or expression of regret could bring back Luis Rosales-Pineda.
"You are a good person, but you made a terrible mistake that night," Ahern told Novela-Nunez, appearing in street clothes Friday for the first time since his April 6 arrest.
Novela-Nunez, an illegal U.S. immigrant from Tecuman, Mexico, was sentenced to two years in prison with credit for the 195 days he's already spent in the Jefferson County Jail.
During his hearing Friday, Novela-Nunez's court-appointed attorney, Ed Sites, presented letters from teachers, a university soccer coach and those who knew the young man back home And the former Madras Mayor called several witnesses to the stand to speak of his client's character, including a state psychologist and an official with the Mexican consulate's office in Portland.
Each described Novela-Nunez as quiet, tranquil and nonviolent -- a man with no prior criminal history in the U.S. or Mexico.
One man told Judge Ahern his former roommate always was the first to intervene in arguments between friends. A Terrebonne restaurant owner said Novela-Nunez considered her his second mother -- and that he had come to America to find work so he could sent money home to his ailing first mother.
Ahern had the choice of sentencing Novela-Nunez to a maximum of 34 months or a minimum of 16 months on charges of criminally negligent homicide and unlawful use of a weapon, which the defendant pleaded no contest to Sept. 13.
Sites advocated for the lesser sentence, and said no one was taking the incident more seriously than Novela-Nunez.
"It galls me to think that a Deschutes County Sheriff can embezzle $500,000 over four years and get 32 months and my client tried to do the right thing and it unfortunately went wrong in 15 seconds," Sites said.
But during his final comments, Ahern retorted that remark, pointing to the fact that the former Deschutes County Sheriff, whose shenanigans were front-page news last week, had been ordered to pay back the money he embezzled.
"If I was in a position where I could order Luis Rosales-Pineda back to life, I'd do it, but I can't," the judge said.
Two of Rosales-Pineda's female cousins -- his closest local relatives -- sat quietly in the back of the courtroom, and avoided looking the defendant in the eye as he apologized for causing the death of their 29-year-old relative.
"I did not want anything to go wrong," Novela-Nunez told them in Spanish through his soft voice, which was translated through an interpreter.
Appearing pale and about 20 pounds lighter than on the day of his arraignment, the deeply religious Novela-Nunez added: "Only God knows why these things happen. I am very sorry for everything."
Rosales-Pineda's cousins gave a victim's assistance employee handwritten statements, which she read aloud to the court.
Both women characterized their cousin, who was deaf, as a man who had overcome adversity throughout his life, including a disability and the loss of several immediate family members.
And they pleaded for appropriate justice -- whether or not Novela-Nunez had intended to kill their relative.
"Though he could not hear or speak, he could read and write," one of the women said of her lost cousin.
"And he went ahead in life all by himself," she continued in her statement.
Rosales-Pineda died moments after a single shot was fired from the Walther PPK .380 Novela-Nunez had picked up off the ground. The bullet tore through both ventricles of his heart, and passed through a lung.
Emergency Medical Services personnel responding to the incident told an officer there was little they could do for the Madras resident when they found him with a hole in his chest and a blank stare at the 4-H Building ceiling.
Both Sites and the state's lead prosecutor, District Attorney Peter Deuel, retraced the steps through witness accounts that lead to the victim's death with only minor discrepancies:
After a brawl broke out at the baptism dance attended by some 200 people, the lead singer of a band providing entertainment pulled out a gun in a perceived attempt to stop the fight, but it was knocked out of his grip.
The gun was then kicked around on the floor like a hockey puck while some partygoers began severely beating the singer, who was known locally as Jesse Gonzales although is real name is Ramon Lomeli-Cornejo. He has since been deported after pleading guilty to a single count of unlawful use of a weapon in connection with the incident.
The semiautomatic pistol was picked up by Novela-Nunez. He cocked it, then pointed it in the direction of several oncoming individuals in an attempt to force them to back down and stop fighting.
A woman providing security testified that Rosales-Pineda came from a direction behind the defendant, grabbed the gun with both hands, then struggled to take it away from Novela-Nunez for a split second before a shot rang out and both men fell to the ground.
Sites argued that his client was trying to do the right thing, and suggested that the tragedy wouldn't have happened if Rosales-Pineda, who had a blood alcohol level of .12, hadn't tried to grab the gun.
"He saw his friend Jesse Gonzales being seriously assaulted and he thought they were going to take the gun and kill him," Sites told Judge Ahern.
"I hope people in this community understand that my client would have rather walked through fire then pull that trigger," the defense attorney added.
But Deuel described the victim's actions as "heroic," saying the court couldn't blame Rosales-Pineda for perceiving the danger of a man pointing a loaded gun at the crowd. Deuel said Novela-Nunez should never have put his finger around the gun's trigger, and likened his actions to picking up a lighted stick of dynamite.
"He handled it in a way that led to it's explosion," said Deuel, who emphasized that the defendant's sentence didn't hinge on intentions, but rather his negligence.
Novela-Nunez originally was charged with first-degree manslaughter, a Measure 11 crime that carries a minimum 10-year prison sentence, and nine other lesser charges. In exchange for his no contest plea to two class C felonies, first-degree manslaughter was replaced with criminally negligent homicide and eight remaining charges were dismissed.
"A lot of discretion has already been introduced into the process and most of it has been on your behalf," Ahern said to Novela-Nunez as he stood to accept his sentence.
Ahern also told Novela-Nunez his actions were a "gross deviation" from what someone should have done in his situation, and said the court was not willing to shift the blame to the victim.
"I am certain you're sorry," the judge said, "But now you have a responsibility you need to fulfill."