A Santa Ana transient charged with murdering another homeless man pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter Wednesday, Feb. 1, as part of a deal ensuring his release by the end of the day.
The plea deal came after attorneys for Jonathan Menjivarlemus found massive mistakes in the Santa Ana police investigation and called for a judge to dismiss the charges. Orange County Superior Court Judge Sheila Hanson rejected the dismissal motion, but a deal was later hatched between the district attorney’s office and the defense to address witness problems.
Superior Court Judge Jonathan Fish approved the agreement, sentencing Menjivarlemus to three years in prison. After consideration of time served and credit for good behavior, Menjivarlemus was set to be released Wednesday night, Deputy Public Defender Nicole Parness said.
Menjivarlemus was facing a potential life sentence if convicted of murdering 29-year-old Jesus Jimenez, who was bludgeoned with a steel pipe on Aug. 26, 2021, along North Raitt Street in Santa Ana.
While allowing Menjivarlemus to go free, the court-approved agreement required that he plead guilty to a killing that Parness said he didn’t commit.
‘Conviction of an innocent man’
“I was really hoping the government would do the right thing and dismiss the case,” Parness said. “My client is happy he will not spend his life in prison, but he maintains his innocence.
“You’ve got a conviction of an innocent man and the actual perpetrator is not paying for his actions.”
Kimberly Edds, a spokesperson for the district attorney’s office, said a hearing on Parness’ motion to dismiss gave prosecutors better insight into the case.
“During the hearing, one of two eyewitnesses recanted her identification and the second eyewitness admitted for the first time on the stand that he had only seen the suspect for one or two seconds,” Edds said. “Based on that new information, the decision was made that it would be in the best interest of justice to accept the … plea.”
Jimenez was slain on the sidewalk by a man wearing a black T-shirt, witnesses said. Menjivarlemus was arrested more than two hours later and 1 1/2 miles away after being attacked by a group of transients. He barricaded himself in a local computer store and asked the owner to call police.
Santa Ana police officers responded to the store and became convinced that the black-shirted Menjivarlemus was the same man who attacked Jimenez.
The key evidence in the case was the eyewitness identification made by a mother and her adult son, who witnessed the Raitt Street attack. Both were separately driven to the Mundo Terra computer store to see Menjivarlemus, who was handcuffed and flanked by officers in the parking lot.
But there were problems with their identification.
The male eyewitness had earlier told officers the attacker had a military-style haircut and was up to 5 feet 8 inches tall. His mother said the assailant was under 5-foot-6. She said she had not seen the attacker’s face, but her statement was not included in the police report. Both witnesses had not noticed any tattoos.
Mejivarlemus stands about 5 feet tall and has tattoos on the inside of his arms that are still visible when he is wearing a T-shirt.
In her motion, Parness said the in-field identification was, by nature, “very suggestive” and that officers failed to ask how far the witnesses were from the scene of the fatal beating — 75 feet — as well as how long they had looked at the assailant.
“Defendant was presented … as a caged monster, sweaty, shirtless with a large visible tattoo on his chest and literally foaming at the mouth from thirst, in handcuffs and physically held by one uniformed officer on each side,” said the defense motion to dismiss the case.
Officers who reviewed security camera footage of the killing said Menjivarlemus was not the guy. They called him a “bantamweight.”
Moreover, 911 calls and security video that could have benefited Menjivarlemus’ defense were lost or destroyed. Officers also failed to investigate Menjivarlemus’ alibi, that he was at a market at the time of the killing. And police body cameras were turned off at key points of the crime scene investigation.
Judge Hanson rejected the defense argument that Menjivarlemus’ right to due process was violated and that the in-field identification was suggestive and tainted.
But Parness isn’t so sure.
“It’s a sad day when you have to plead somebody who is innocent,” she said.
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