Jury returns verdict during 3-day murder trial of trailer park killing in St. George

Victor Manuel Hernandez is shown in this composite image that includes a background photo of St. George Police at the crime scene near Dixie Downs Road, St. George, Utah, June 22, 2018 | Crime scene photo by Cody Blowers; booking photo of Hernandez courtesy of the Washington County Sheriff's Office, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A 5th District Court jury deliberated less than an hour on Wednesday before finding 23-year-old Victor Manuel Hernandez guilty of murder following a stabbing that left one man dead inside of a mobile home off Dixie Drive in 2018.

Prosecutor Ryan Shaum addresses the court during murder trial of Victor Hernandez held at 5th District Court in St. George, Utah, Sept. 23, 2021 | Screenshot through Webex taken by Ron Chaffin, St. George News

The three-day trial, held before District Judge Jeffrey Wilcox, began Monday.

Hernandez was charged with stabbing 23-year-old Luwing Leonard Lopez during an altercation that took place at Red Shadows Mobile Home Park on Dixie Drive on June 22, 2018. The two men, who were friends, got into a conversation that escalated into a heated argument, which is when Hernandez stabbed Lopez multiple times, according to police.

The suspect told several witnesses he “killed someone,” according to court records, information that was relayed to authorities. Lopez was found dead in the trailer the following day.

The cause of death was found to be internal bleeding from lacerations to the internal organs caused by blunt force trauma, while the state medical examiner determined the manner of death to be a homicide.

During questioning, Hernandez admitted to investigators that he “intentionally killed the male victim with a knife,” which was later recovered from the scene. The suspect was arrested later that same day and booked into jail, where he has remained since his arrest June 23, 2018 on $250,000 bail.

During closing arguments on Wednesday, Prosecutor Ryan Shaum addressed the court by saying the case is a tragedy that ended with a young life being lost.

He also said this was not a case that would have made a good murder mystery, since there was no mystery as to who committed the crime. Even so, he said, there were several factors that needed to be considered during jury deliberations.

First, Shaum said, the jury must decide if Hernandez “intentionally or knowingly caused the death” of Lopez, or if the defendant intended to cause serious bodily injury to another, actions that were clearly dangerous to human life.

In this case, Shaum said, those actions did in fact cause the death of Lopez, actions the defendant was aware would be fatal when he plunged the knife into the victim’s body more than eight times.

The prosecutor then went over the series of events that led up to the altercation that started when Hernandez pulled a knife from his waist and held it in front of Lopez, actions the defendant told police were due to his belief that Lopez was going to kill his newborn son. The defendant started stabbing Lopez throughout his torso, who then screamed as ran toward the door.

The defendant placed Lopez in a chokehold, “by his own statement,” Shaum said, waiting for Lopez to die – and then continued stabbing the victim in his head and neck until “the act is finished.”

In this 2018 file photo officers respond to a suspicious death at a mobile home park off of Dixie Downs Road, St. George, Utah, June 22, 2018 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

Lopez died next to the door where the final assault took place, the prosecutor said, adding that he had done nothing to provoke any type of violent response that day. After the attack, Hernandez changed his clothes and called a family member to pick him up, and, Shaum said, the defendant then lied to detectives about what had happened, even after they found the suspect’s clothing “covered in blood.”

He also said the attack on Lopez was violent. In fact, several of the knife wounds were not survivable, and penetrated the pancreas, liver, lungs, and also severed the man’s cervical spine, as well as a partial transection of another part of his spine.

The prosecutor added that even if Lopez had survived the attack, he would have been rendered a quadriplegic.

The defendant then stabbed Lopez in the head so violently that it penetrated into the man’s brain. Shaum also said that Hernandez had no injuries when authorities found him.

With regards to intent, the prosecutor said, and based on the evidence, it was clear Hernandez intended to kill Lopez that day.

Shaum closed by saying the basic tenants of criminal law is that the burden of proving guilt rests entirely on the state, and that Hernandez is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

“That is until the state has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant has committed the crime of murder,” he said.

Defense Attorney Ken Combs then addressed the court by saying the state does have the burden of proving “beyond reasonable doubt each and every element of the charge of murder,” and it was the jury members who are the triers of the facts.

Combs went over the testimony of the defendant’s family members presented during trial, and said his client never told them he killed anyone, and he also said the state’s position was that Hernandez’s clothing “was saturated in blood.”

That is just not true, Combs said, inviting the jury to look at photos submitted during the trial to see there were “a few red spots” on the clothing. He also said there were issues in the past between Hernandez and Lopez, and as one of the witnesses testified, months before the stabbing, Hernandez said he was afraid of Lopez. The two were known to argue “quite a bit,” Combs said.

Defense attorney Ken Combs addresses the court during murder trial of Victor Hernandez held at 5th District Court in St. George, Utah, Sept. 23, 2021 | Screenshot through Webex taken by Ron Chaffin, St. George News

He then went over the testimony of Bianca Flores, who testified for the defense. Combs recounted her testimony involving a visit to a family member’s home where Hernandez was living at the time.

When she went to the defendant’s bedroom, he said, she found him cowering in the corner of the darkened room and said he “looked fearful.” Then, when Hernandez stood up quickly and looked out the window, Combs said, the defendant motioned for her to come toward the window. When she looked out, she saw Lopez’s vehicle.

“And Victor was afraid,” Combs said.

Combs also said the jury was to rely on the evidence during deliberations, which, in part, included statements made by Hernandez, who provided three separate statements to police, and gave differing accounts during each. It was during the last statement, Combs said, that Hernandez did admit to killing Lopez, and his client also told detectives that spirits told him that Lopez “will try to kill his children,” and that Lopez would kill his child as a sacrifice.

Combs said there were elements of the case that were not known or proven during the trial, and evidence that wasn’t tested – including the knife, he said, as well as the pants Hernandez was wearing that were never sent to the crime lab, and combined with differing accounts and three interviews that changed over time, he asked the jury to be discerning when considering the weight of such evidence.

Combs closed by saying the state had not met the burden of proof required to find his client guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

“But there’s a lot of doubt out there,” he said, and asked the jury to find his client not guilty.

Shaum then addressed the court during redirect and reminded the jury that reasonable doubt is defined as proof that would leave the jury firmly convinced of the defendant’s guilt, adding there are very few things in this world that anyone can know with absolute certainty, and in criminal cases, the law does not require proof that overcomes every possible doubt.

He also said the reason not every piece of evidence was tested was because there was only one suspect in the case, so they did not need to determine if anyone else was involved.

“This was not a who-done-it,” Shaum said. “We know who did it.”

Shaum closed by saying Hernandez intended to kill Lopez and referred to an apology letter the defendant sent to the victim’s children, which stated: “I did it for my son. And one day you will understand it.”

Judge Wilcox read jury instructions and released the jury to deliberate at 3:18 p.m.

At 4:08 p.m., the jury returned and found the defendant guilty of murder.

Hernandez is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 9, following a pre-sentence investigation. He is being held on $250,000 bail and has remained in custody for more than three years since his arrest June 23, 2018.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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