31-year-oldAngel Duarte Cerna was sentenced today to 25 years to life in state prison for suffocating and murdering his wife in Anaheim before dumping her body on the side of a freeway in Los Angeles County in 2006.
"At the sentencing today, five family members of Gabriella Herrera told the court that while the defendant received justice under man's law, he will also receive justice under God's law," reports the Orange County District Attorney's Office
Original Post, December 14, 3 p.m.: Gabriella "Gaby" Herrera was a spiritual person, the loving mother of two sons, a dear sister, a paralegal and, sadly, for eight months the wife of a smooth-talking murderer she'd met at an LA Fitness in Tustin.
Today, after less than three hours of deliberation, an Orange County jury of nine women and three men determined that Angel Duarte Cerna was guilty of committing first-degree murder in the 2006 Anaheim killing of the 31-year-old Herrera.
Police said Cerna dumped the corpse in a shallow grave near a Los Angeles hillside homeless encampment off Highway 60, and then coldly pretended his wife had taken a solo vacation.
Cerna--a native of El Salvador and a driver for Mercedes-Benz's House of Imports in Buena Park--showed no emotion at the verdict during a two-minute hearing, although he immediately told his legal representative, a public defender, that he wants to appeal the conviction as soon as possible.
Herrera's family quietly wept after the announcement inside Judge David A. Thompson's eighth-floor Santa Ana courtroom. They later hugged prosecutor Howard Gundy, as well as Anaheim police officers involved in solving the crime that began as a simple missing-person case. "Thank you so much," one family member told Gundy.
Within hours of Herrera's disappearance, her family suspected an odd-acting Cerna was responsible. He'd repeatedly lied about his whereabouts and the rocky status of his marriage. Soon, he had moved out of the couple's apartment, quit his job, didn't return phone calls from detectives and told acquaintances he wanted to move to Canada. Meanwhile, his wife was missing, and he wasn't doing anything to help find her.
For almost two months, Herrera was Jane Doe #81 inside the Los Angeles County morgue.
In his closing argument, alternate Public DefenderWayne Davis
argued that no physical evidence or eyewitness could definitively tie Cerna to the killing. He suggested she may have gone to a grocery store and been silently kidnapped and murdered by unknown assailants. He also said that police had "twisted" facts, though he acknowledged his client had acted "creepy" and "weird."
"But acting strange does not mean he killed someone," said Davis, who'd mocked the prosecution's case as weak. "Either my client is a genus or an idiot."
Or a creepy, idiotic killer.
Cerna waited hours to contact police about his missing wife, and then, apparently unaware that cell-phone towers record the location of phone usage, lied to a 911 operator about his whereabouts. He'd claimed he was in Buena Park, where he worked. But records show he made the call nearly 40 minutes away, from Baldwin Park, an LA suburb.
You know what else was just happened to be in Baldwin Park? Herrera's missing car, which was eventually located in a Burger King parking lot.
"A coincidence!" explained Davis.
But veteran homicide prosecutor Gundy couldn't hide his contempt for Cerna, who had an ugly history of domestic violence with a prior wife. In the trial's most dramatic moment, he reminded the jury that the coroner had estimated it may have taken the killer five minutes to cause Herrera's asphyxiation by holding a violet-colored pillow over her face and muffling her screams for help.
(Indeed, one of her sons from a prior relationship told authorities he heard a scream on the night his mother is presumed to have been killed; he left his bedroom to investigate, didn't hear anything else and returned to bed.)
To emphasize the premeditation and deliberation of the killing, Gundy stood silently in front of the jury for 105 seconds, the shortest possible time it took Cerna to suffocate his wife. It felt like an eternity. Eventually, Herrera's family members in attendance began crying. Halfway through, Gundy said softly, "All this time, he's pressing down on her face with the pillow."
The 38-year-old Cerna, seated at the defense table, closed his eyes.
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Several jurors shook their heads and stole quick glances at the defendant.
"This is a verdict he's earned," Gundy said in conclusion. "Hold him responsible."
Cerna is scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 20. Judge Thompson has two options: give him probation or a 25-years-to-life sentence in a California prison.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly