A state appeals court has thrown out a Toppenish man’s 2014 murder conviction, saying that a Yakima County deputy prosecutor misinformed jurors about the law used to convict the man.
Three judges from the state Court of Appeals, Division III in Spokane ordered a new trial for Ray Leny Betancourth, 22, who was convicted of second-degree murder and first-degree assault in the death of 15-year-old Jose Rodriguez of Buena in September 2012.
The teenager was shot to death in Toppenish in a dispute involving Betancourth, who was not accused of the actual shooting. The man charged with firing the shots, Marco Cardenas, remains at large.
Betancourth brought Cardenas to a confrontation with several others, including Rodriguez. But during the trial, he maintained he did not know Cardenas was armed and did not ask or otherwise cause him to kill the victim.
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But during closing arguments to the jury, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney David Soukup said Betancourth “provided the opportunity” for Cardenas to kill Rodriguez. That, Soukup said, met the definition needed to secure a conviction.
The appeals court disagreed. In the ruling issued Thursday, they said Soukup misrepresented elements of the law.
“The prosecuting attorney misstating the law of the case to the jury is a serious irregularity having the potential to mislead the jury,” Chief Judge George Fearing wrote in his opinion, in which Judges Laurel Siddoway and Rebecca Pennell concurred.
In their 32-page ruling, the appeal judges noted earlier cases stated that “A prosecuting attorney commits misconduct by misstating the law.”
Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic, who didn’t take office until five months after the trial, was on vacation Thursday and unavailable for comment. Soukup said he could not comment on the ruling because it is a pending legal case.
Toppenish police say Betancourth was with Cardenas when he spotted a Sureño gang member he believed was responsible for vandalizing his car, and whom he said he was going to fight. Betancourth got Cardenas and two others to come with him to confront the suspected vandal and his companions. The confrontation grew into gang taunts between the two groups, culminating in the shooting.