After hearing tearful testimony, Bedford murder suspect changes plea to avoid death penalty
walked into court Thursday morning, his fate was in the hands of 12 jurors.
After finding him guilty of capital murder Wednesday, it was the jury's responsibility to come up with a punishment. They could chose life in prison or the death penalty.
Both sides came to court prepared with witness testimony. First to speak was Marjorie Stagno, mother of Soto-Bonilla's murder victim Raymond Wood.
"That night has changed my life," Stagno said tearfully, as she talked about losing her job and her home after Wood was killed on March 27, 2017. "All I have left is his urn. His ashes. I can't even keep it at my place, because it's still too devastating."
As Soto-Bonilla listened quietly, Stagno described having to see pictures of her son's mutilated body after his murder.
"No mother should ever have to see pictures of her child brutally murdered like that," Stagno said.
Stagno's testimony apparently had an impact on Soto-Bonilla. During a lunch recess, he told his attorneys that he wanted to take responsibility for Wood's murder.
"I believe it really had an effect," Soto-Bonilla's defense attorney, Tony Anderson, said Thursday afternoon. "He heard every word of it."
Soto-Bonilla reached an agreement with prosecutors. He accepted responsibility for Wood's murder and changed his pleas to guilty. In accordance with the agreement formed with prosecutors and with the blessing of Wood's family, Judge Jim Updike sentenced Soto-Bonilla to life in prison for capital murder, life in prison for abduction and ten years in prison for gang participation, removing the death penalty from consideration.
"Mr. Soto Bonilla's life was spared because he came in and took responsibility," said Bedford County Commonwealth's Attorney, Wes Nance. "I will never apologize for showing grace when I have the family's backing and the evidence to prove what I did in that courtroom."
As part of his agreement, Soto Bonilla accepts responsibility and waives his right to appeal the verdict.
In a final statement, Soto-Bonilla spoke directly to Marjorie Stagno, the mother of his victim.
"I am very sorry to the Wood family," Soto-Bonilla said through a Spanish translator. "I imagine how a mother would feel. I feel it from my heart. May God give you the strength to move forward."
In a unanimous verdict Wednesday after more than two hours of deliberations, the jury found Soto-Bonilla guilty of capital murder. He was also found not guilty of robbery, guilty of gang participation and guilty of abduction.
Soto-Bonilla, 22, was accused of taking part in the murder of Raymond Wood, who was found dead along an isolated stretch of Roaring Run Road in Goode on March 27, 2017.
In closing arguments at the end of a week-long trial Wednesday, Bedford County commonwealth's attorney Wes Nance characterized Wood's murder as a way for the MS-13 gang to eliminate a competitor. Earlier in the trial he said Wood, a 17-year-old high school student, operated a "small but lucrative marijuana business."
"Wood was considered a rival," Nance told jurors Wednesday. "He had something that the gang would benefit from and its members, such as Soto-Bonilla, would benefit from."
Soto-Bonilla was accused of not only killing Wood, but taking part in his abduction and robbery. In their closing argument to the jury, Soto-Bonilla's defense attorneys said no evidence was put forward during the trial to prove their client robbed Wood or had an intent to commit murder.
"Please don't guess at this. Please don't suspect about this," defense attorney Aaron Houchens cautioned the jury. "Please don't let your personal feelings regarding any of the evidence presented here outweigh your duty."
Defense attorneys suggested throughout Soto-Bonilla's trial that Wood's murder was the result of a personal disagreement between the 17-year-old and Soto-Bonilla's co-defendants, Victor Rodas and Jose Corea-Ventura. Jurors saw text messages during the trial, which appeared to show Wood threatening to rob or shoot Rodas.
Prosecutors say MS-13 was conspiring to expand its business into Lynchburg and killing Wood was a way to mark their territory.
"Did Raymond disrespect a member? Yes. What a better reason to pick that marijuana dealer to make an example of," Nance said in his closing rebuttal.
Jurors started deliberating the Soto-Bonilla case at 2:15 Wednesday afternoon. They paused briefly after an hour behind closed doors to send a question out to the judge, seeking an explanation of "pecuniary." The word was used by both prosecutors and defense attorneys in closing arguments to describe the financial gain, or lack thereof, MS-13 could have gained by targeting Wood for murder.