Originally posted at 5:06 p.m. July 7, 2014. Edited with new details.
By PAUL ANDERSON
City News Service
An appellate court panel today upheld the second-degree murder convictions of five inmates who attacked a fellow prisoner at the Theo Lacy branch jail in Orange because they mistakenly thought he was a child molester.
Garrett Eugene Aguilar, Jared Louis Petrovich, Raul Villafana and Stephen Paul Carlstrom were sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for the Oct. 5, 2006, beating death of John Chamberlain, while Miguel Angel Guillen received a 20-year-to-life term because he had prior strikes.
Four other defendants accepted plea deals.
Waves of inmates stomped Chamberlain to death in a beating that took place for about 30 minutes while three Orange County sheriff's deputies were in an enclosed guard station just 68 feet away, according to the three-justice panel of the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana.
"Chamberlain suffered injuries consistent with a high-velocity car accident, including fractures to 21 of his 24 ribs," the justices' 120-page opinion states.
The defendants argued there was insufficient evidence to support the second-degree murder convictions; that the judge overseeing the trial should have dismissed charges based on "outrageous government conduct"; and that there were errors in the handling of evidence in the case.
The defendants additionally argued that jurors should have been allowed to consider involuntary manslaughter; that the judge misstated jury instructions when one panelist had to be excused for illness; and that there was an error in the calculation of fines for two defendants.
Only the error in the fines was upheld, so Aguilar and Petrovich will pay lesser fines.
The leaders of jail gangs, which are organized by race, were wrongly informed that Chamberlain, a 41-year-old Mission Viejo software engineer, was a child molester, which led to the organized beating, according to trial testimony.
Petrovich, who admitted in an OC Weekly interview that he "lit the fuse" but said he did not believe he should have faced murder charges, told investigators that Deputies Kevin Taylor and Jason Chapluk discussed Chamberlain's case within earshot of of Petrovich to encourage the beating.
Chamberlain was lured to a barracks area that was out of sight from guards and was beaten, kicked and sexually assaulted by his attackers.
"Pursuant to Petrovich's authorization, Aguilar escorted Chamberlain to one of the only places in F Barracks where even a diligent and interested deputy would not be able to observe the attack, D cube's blind spot," the ruling says. "Over the course of about 30 minutes, at least 30 and by some accounts 50 inmates participated in the assault on Chamberlain, hitting him, kicking him, stomping on him, spanking him, spitting on him, urinating on him, spilling hot coffee on him, stripping off his clothes, and putting foreign items in his rectum. When inmates beat Chamberlain unconscious, they threw water on him to wake him up and then continued beating him."
Aguilar argued he engaged in an "aggravated assault" that "was not an inherently dangerous felony," but the justices knocked down the claim as "nonsense," noting that his contribution to the attack was the "most egregious" of any of Chamberlain's assailants.
Child molesters are considered the most despised inmates, so the defendants should have known it would be a dangerous beating, the justices ruled.
In their outrageous government conduct claim, the defendants alleged sheriff's investigators carried out a "biased" probe and that prosecutors did not charge the deputies accused of being involved in the conspiracy to attack Chamberlain.
The appellate justices, however, ruled that the defendants ultimately received effective legal assistance and a fair trial.
Jurors deadlocked on first-degree murder charges, prompting Senior Deputy District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh to request that the jury move on to the lesser charges.
"Our position has been from the beginning that what these defendants did to Mr. Chamberlain was barbaric, sub-human and that it was murder," Baytieh said of the appellate ruling.
"This is exactly what I told the jury during the trial, and we are gratified that the court of appeal upheld the convictions of these defendants. The five defendants received a fair trial and were justly convicted of murder. They are now where they belong: in prison for life."