ELKO — Among a tearful response from a gallery filled with friends and family anxiously anticipating the trial’s outcome, Eduardo Estrada-Puentes was found guilty of first-degree murder Tuesday for the 2011 death of his estranged wife Stephanie Gonzalez.
“Today we got justice for Stephanie, after five years and four months the verdict came in, first-degree murder. It’s what we wanted,” said Lidia Cortes, Gonzalez’s mother and a proponent against domestic violence.
The 12-member jury stated to the court each member was in agreement with the decision.
The investigation led to a manhunt spanning borders and igniting the community’s efforts to educate on and prevent domestic violence.
An Elko District Court jury returned the verdict over the noon hour after hearing closing arguments from attorneys Tuesday morning.
Chief District Attorney Chad Thompson’s presentation included having the courtroom pause as he counted off four minutes, the average time it takes for someone to die from strangulation.
Estrada-Puentes’ defense claimed the act was voluntary manslaughter, done in the heat of passion during an argument on the morning Gonzalez stopped by their trailer home on Garcia Lane to pick up her work uniform.
Over two-dozen witnesses were called over the course of the week-long trial.
Sentencing is to be scheduled by the court for a later date. Victim impact testimony is expected, said Elko District Judge Al Kacin.
There were approximately 36 jury instructions that included definitions of first and second-degree murder as well as voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.
Voluntary manslaughter describes a sudden quarrel provoking the act in the “heat of passion.” According to the jury instructions, there cannot be an interval for “human reason” during the course of the act.
The instructions also included definitions on direct and circumstantial evidence; that the flight of a person after a crime is not enough to establish guilt; and evaluation as to the credibility of a witness can be utilized when conflicting trial statements occur.
Thompson stood before the jury to present the State’s arguments. After reminding the panel of 26 witnesses it heard and the over 30 pieces of evidence presented, he suggested the State has proven beyond a reasonable doubt Estrada-Puentes committed first-degree murder.
“He did premeditate, he did deliberate and he did willfully and unlawfully kill Stephanie Estrada with malice aforethought. That’s what the evidence shows … that’s what we ask as your verdict in this case,” said Thompson.
When showing the jury a list of the elements of murder Estrada-Puentes could be found guilty of, Thompson said the difference from first-degree murder to manslaughter is based on Estrada-Puentes’ mental state when he killed Gonzalez.
“Instruction 16 told you that intent may be proved by circumstantial evidence. It can rarely be established by any other means,” said Thompson. “You can’t see inside someone’s head so we have to look around, we have to look at what they did, we have to look at what they said.”
According to testimony and their daughter K’iawna, Estrada-Puentes said, “You’re dead.”
The now 10-year-old said it to three different people.
“We would like you to remember, this was five years ago,” said Thompson, pointing to the child not remembering saying those words during her testimony last week.
The last words K’iawna said she heard her mother say was when she shrieked out “Eduardo.”
“That shows his intent was formed, that he had deliberated, that he had decided what he was going to do, that he had premeditated,” said Thompson, explaining an amount of time does not have to be shown to prove premeditation and deliberation to have occurred.
“It can be as quick as successive thoughts is what the instructions tell you,” he said.
The prosecutor reiterated the words “You’re dead” as he said Estrada-Puentes possibly grabbed for Gonzalez’s throat, overcoming her.
“Ten or 15 seconds Dr. (Piotr) Kubiczek talked about, there’s 10 or 15 seconds that he has to squeeze before she succumbs and is unconscious” said Thompson.
The autopsy photos clearly showed signs of a struggle, causing bruises and injuries to her back, said Thompson, referencing Kubiczek.
“Five minutes is what K’iawna says, five minutes and it just got quiet, she didn’t hear anything,” said the prosecutor. “Four minutes is what the doctor said, from start to finish, … 15 seconds she’s passed out … she’s a ragdoll in his hands, and what did he choose to do at this juncture, keep squeezing.”
If Estrada-Puentes had let go, Kubiczek said in his testimony, a healthy 29-year-old would have come back after that 10 or 15 seconds.
Self-defense is not an issue in this case. The jury did not have to agree when premeditation occurred but that it did in fact occur.
“This is not a question of who did it. This is a question of degree,” said Sherburne Macfarlan, explaining Gonzalez’s death was voluntary manslaughter.
Infidelities can cause a person to act on irresistible passion, stated the defense.
Pointing to Thompson’s presentation of the four minutes it would have taken to murder Gonzalez, Macfarlan said there is a difference between the silence of a courtroom and the heat of passion.
“Time does not matter. Time does not exist for you,” he said, stating the State did not show proof beyond a reasonable doubt concerning premeditation and deliberation.
Macfarlan stated it was not a surprise for the kids to be coming back from Tucson when they did, and questioned Estrada-Puentes’ actions leading up to the June 25, 2011, morning. Why would he have sent her roses if he was contemplating killing her — or that there was no hope the marriage could be saved? Why did they discuss looking for a new trailer for her and the kids to live in?
Also, if there was premeditation, why did he not have an escape plan in place? It was suggested by the defense the money Estrada-Puentes asked Vanessa Villegas to transfer would have already been done.
Estrada knew he was headed toward a divorce. It is not uncommon to try and secure funds, he said.
Other arguments against premeditation included killing Gonzalez when the kids were in the house and why Estrada-Puentes did not try to direct suspicion toward someone else.
There was no testimony Estrada-Puentes intended to kill Gonzalez.
In the State’s rebuttal, Thompson looked at the jury and asked: Who would do this in front of his children? “Eduardo.”