Startled trigger finger to blame

Michael James Hemphill pleads not guilty in killing of Brandon Sanchez

Attorney Alvaro Gonzalez and Michael Hemphill
  • Attorney Alvaro Gonzalez and Michael Hemphill

A man charged with murder for shooting an old friend at point-blank range did not intend to kill, according to opening statements made in court on February 18.

Michael James Hemphill turned 60 years old in custody last week; he has been held in lieu of one million dollars bail since April of 2013.

Defense attorney Alvaro Gonzalez told the jury, “He is not guilty of murder” and “There was no malice, there was no intent to kill.” Gonzalez asserted that Hemphill was “startled” and “he flinched.”

The defendant apparently intends to take the witness box, because his attorney told the jury: “He will tell you it was not intentional and that it was accidental.”

Escondido police found Brandon Sanchez, 35, lying on the ground in the 600 block of McDonald Lane after 8 p.m. on April 24, 2013. Sanchez was declared dead at the scene.

The prosecutor told the jury that Hemphill said to responding officers: “I should have shot him last time, but you got there early.” Police had been called to the property at least twice before, according to deputy district attorney Laurie Hauf.

Witnesses stated that the two men had met about ten years earlier, when they were both working on a construction job. It was Sanchez who arranged for Hemphill to live in a trailer on the property in Escondido, as a favor. Sanchez was familiar with the property because he did yard work for the disabled woman who owned it; she lived in the main home there.

However, the property owner eventually wanted Hemphill to leave because he was a drinker and had a worrisome temperament, according to the prosecutor. The landlady was informed that it was a “civil matter” to get Hemphill removed, and she had made plans to go to court to evict him, according to the prosecutor.

The day of the shooting, Sanchez had arrived at the property about two hours earlier with two men. Sanchez was taking a break from yard work, reclining against a small wooden table, when he was approached by Hemphill, according to a witness. Hemphill said, “I’ve had enough of you” while he extended his arm, according to the witness, who did not see a gun but did see flame and smoke and heard a loud bang.

Investigators recovered a .45 caliber 1911 Essex Arms Corp semi-automatic pistol.

The jury saw a photo of Sanchez’s right hand, with a ragged hole in the palm and dark stippling around the wound. The bullet traveled through the hand into his chest and came to rest in his back, according to Hauf.

The prosecutor claimed that Hemphill asked a witness who was checking the status of the victim, “Are you going to clean this shit up?”

The trial continues this week in San Diego’s North County Superior Courthouse in Vista.

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I suppose we all have a definition of old friends.

The eyewitness accounts don't support this theory that it was an accident in any way. But there are occasionally juries that will believe anything, and going on the stand has little downside for him. In addition, he has the example of Julie Harper to guide him and inspire him to make up a total cock-and-bull story to escape conviction. He might just pull it off, although I doubt it. And why does it take almost two years to get this to trial? It should have been settled in about four months, tops.

Michael Hemphill did take the witness box to explain himself, during trial. During his testimony, some jurors found it hard to stay composed -- one juror was seen shaking her head and another actually rolled his eyes. The jury deliberated about one hour before they declared Hemphill guilty of murder this morning, February 26, 2015.

So, the Julie Harper ploy of making up a story didn't work. If he had been female and younger, it might have swayed a jury. Well, when you have no other way of avoiding conviction, you might as well go for it. He's looking at 25 to life, plus a firearms enhancement. He's 60 now and with that sentence, will never be a free man again.

Prosecutor Laurie Hauf released a statement late yesterday: "We believe justice was served with the jury's first degree murder verdict." The deputy district attorney said the minimum sentence for Hemphill is 50 years to Life in California State prison. Probably because he used a firearm to commit the crime, and he does have a prior record. The family of the murdered man, who took up more than half the seats in the gallery -- every day during trial -- will probably speak to the court before sentence is announced. The same judge who heard the trial, Honorable Robert Kearney, will declare sentence after 1:30 p.m. on April 23, 2015.

I"m sure the family will speak, although their comments will have no effect at all on the sentence. We are often treated to those "speak and weep" sessions prior to sentencing, and usually the judge then advises that the sentence is a matter of law and not of discretion. Is this judge likely to make the sentence, which is for all practical purposes a true "life" sentence, even more severe? I don't have any recollection of him or of his sentencing history.

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