Case # 07CF2786

Date: February 5, 2015

*Orange County District Attorney (OCDA) requested the Court to vacate murder conviction

SANTA ANA – A gang member was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in state prison today for killing a teenager in a rival gang. Leonel Vega, 34, pleaded guilty to one felony count of voluntary manslaughter with a sentencing enhancement for the personal use of a firearm.

Circumstances of the Case
Around March 9, 2004, Vega, then-23, and a fellow gang member drove up to Giovani Onofre, his brother Andrew Onofre, 15, and friend Hector Lopez, 19, in a white Lincoln Town Car at a bus stop near Memorial Park in Santa Ana. The defendant exited the vehicle and flashed a criminal street gang hand sign to the victim. The other gang member inside the car asked Giovani Onofre his gang affiliation, and Giovani Onofre responded that he belonged to a rival criminal street gang. Vega got back into the vehicle while the other gang member in the car pulled out a gun. Andrew Onofre and Lopez ran away from the car and hid. Giovani Onofre jumped a fence nearby and kept running. Vega circled Memorial Park in the car, caught up with Giovani Onofre, and shot the victim once in the head.

Andrew Onofre and Lopez contacted the Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD) immediately after having fled the scene. Giovani Onofre was later found dead with a gunshot wound to the head at a construction site near the bus stop.

On March 14, 2004, SAPD officers spotted the white Lincoln Town Car that matched witnesses’ descriptions several blocks from the crime scene and attempted a traffic stop of the car. Vega, who was driving, refused to stop and led SAPD on a pursuit, which ended in his arrest. SAPD searched the defendant’s vehicle and found several firearms and live ammunition matching the bullet and casing found at the scene. Sufficient evidence to charge Vega, including eye-witness identification, was not discovered until 2007.

Previous Sentence Vacated
On Dec. 16, 2010, a jury convicted Vega of special circumstances murder of 17-year-old Giovani Onofre. He was sentenced on July 1, 2011, to life in state prison without the possibility of parole.

In February 2014, the OCDA received information that in 2009, while looking for more evidence, an SAPD detective may have elicited statements from Vega, via an in-custody informant, after the commencement of his criminal proceedings, in violation of his 6th Amendment right known as a Massiah v. United States, 377 U.S. 201 (Massiah) violation. In order to protect the defendant’s Constitutional rights and the integrity of the justice system, the OCDA investigated whether a Massiah violation occurred. The OCDA found that the SAPD detective had prompted the jailhouse informant to elicit information from Vega, without disclosing it to the OCDA. Because the informant had testified at Vega’s trial to the statements made by Vega to the informant in violation of Massiah, the OCDA concluded that Vega should be granted a new trial. The detective who planned the use of the informant that violated Massiah is no longer with SAPD.

On June 23, 2014, the OCDA wrote and submitted jointly with Vega’s defense counsel a motion to the Court for the reversal of Vega’s murder conviction. The stipulation cited the recently discovered Massiah violation. The Honorable Gregg L. Prickett overturned the conviction at the request of the OCDA and the sentence was vacated. A new trial was granted. At a pre-trial hearing today Vega pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in a negotiated plea with the OCDA. In doing so, he submitted the following factual basis: “In Orange County, CA, on March 9, 2004, I willfully, unlawfully and intentionally killed Giavani Onofre, a human being without malice but with conscious disregard for human life upon sudden quarrel or heat of passion and I personally used and discharged a firearm to kill Onofre.”

SAPD investigated this case. Senior Deputy District Attorney Rahul Gupta of the Gangs Unit prosecuted the case after the motion for a new trial.