An appellate court has overturned the conviction of a man who allegedly stalked his 19-year-old estranged wife before stabbing her to death in a City College bathroom in 2010.
The fourth appellate district court ruled 45-year-old Armando Perez needed legal counsel to plead guilty to the murder of Diana Gonzalez, even though he insisted on representing himself during the trial.
“The judgment must be reversed and the matter remanded with directions to strike Perez’s guilty plea,” the court ruling says.
In late 2010, Gonzalez was taking classes at San Diego City College to become a nurse. The 19-year-old had just given birth to a beautiful baby girl.
In October 2010, another City College student found Gonzalez’ body on the bathroom floor on campus.
The young mother and nursing student had been viciously stabbed to death; her injuries so severe that it was difficult to identify her, a homicide captain said in 2010.
The appellate court records reveal her attacker also sexually mutilated her body, stabbing her in her genital area and carving a derogatory word into her back.
Less than a month prior, Gonzalez obtained a temporary restraining order against her estranged husband and father to their 10-month old child.
Gonzalez, who lived in National City, alleged in the court papers that Perez had kidnapped her from City College in September 2010.
She reported he beat her, and held her captive in motel rooms for three days.
A Sept. 23 police report says Perez showed up at City College, grabbed Gonzalez and choked her until she lost consciousness.
When she woke, she was in a moving vehicle and her face was bloody and swollen, according to the report.
Perez told her: “Just close your eyes and pray. That’s all you can do now,” as he drove to a nearby motel, according to the report.
“I felt there was no way to escape,” Gonzalez told San Diego police, according to the report.
When Perez went to a store the next day to purchase items to reduce swelling in Gonzalez’s face, she tried to escape by running down the street, but Perez caught her, beat her, and shoved her back in the car, according to the report.
Gonzalez reported Perez raped her twice during the three-day ordeal.
Officers with the San Diego Police Department arrested Perez on suspicion of kidnapping, rape and assault, but he was released due to “insufficient evidence.”
A homicide captain said in 2010 that police obtained physical evidence from the kidnapping and rape, but did not give further details about why Perez wasn’t prosecuted.
“The District Attorney’s office reviewed the case. However, they did not issue the case and he was released from custody,” then Homicide Capt. Jim Collins said.
Perez On the Run
After Perez held Gonzalez captive in motel rooms for three days, her family members said they were so concerned for her safety that they escorted her almost everywhere she went.
That included her classes at City College where her parents waited for her in the campus parking lot watching the door where she was supposed to come out of class at 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 12, the night of her murder.
A student discovered Gonzalez’s body around 10 p.m. that night, but Gonzalez’ parents had already been making frantic phone calls to police, after their daughter did not answer her cell phone.
Three hours later, homicide detectives officially told Gonzalez’ parents what they said they already knew.
Police say Perez stole a vehicle and escaped to Tijuana, where a sibling lived.
A year went by with little progress in the case.
Police reached out to Latino communities, distributing flyers in Spanish with the words “Accusado De Homicidio” in an effort to find Perez.
A provisional arrest warrant was issued by the Mexican government, permitting Perez’ arrest by Mexican law enforcement.
Months passed and family and friends held vigils in Gonzalez’ memory.
In February 2012, a team of San Diego police officers and Mexican authorities took Perez, then-38, into custody on Avenida Revolucion in Tijuana.
“As required by Mexico for the extradition of a Mexican national, the district attorney promised to not seek the death penalty,” according to the appellate court ruling.
“Why did you tell me to plead not guilty? I’m guilty!” Perez shouted at his court appointed attorney during his arraignment. “I’m guilty alright.”
Multiple other times during the trial, Perez admitted guilt.
In February 2013, Perez complained his court-appointed attorney Michael Garcia wasn’t providing adequate representation.
In September 2013, Perez insisted on representing himself in the case.
In an exclusive interview with NBC 7, Perez said he killed his estranged wife because he could no longer control her.
“When you know that you lost control, you love somebody and now it’s too late,” Perez said. “I’m sorry. I always will be sorry, even if I die tomorrow.”
A judge suspended court proceedings in November 2013 as Perez underwent a competency evaluation.
In November 2014, Perez admitted guilt again saying: “I plead guilty to all charges because that’s exactly what happened.”
A judge asked Perez if he understood he would be sentenced to life in prison without parole, and Perez acknowledged he understood.
But then in January 2015, Perez tried to withdraw his guilty plea and enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.
A judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Now, an appellate court has overturned Perez’ guilty plea and his conviction.
“Perez contends that under section 1018 the trial court had no authority to accept his guilty plea to an LWOP (life without possibility of parole) offense because he was not represented by counsel at the time of the plea. We agree,” the appellate court wrote.
Gonzalez’ mother could not be reached Wednesday for comment, but told Perez at a prior court hearing that his life sentence was not punishment enough.
“I hope and I ask God every day that you die in jail and that you rot because you don’t have a heart or a soul,” said Gonzalez’ mother in Spanish.
The District Attorney’s office will prosecute the case again and Perez will remain in custody, a DA spokesman said.
Defense Attorney Marc Carlos is not involved in the case, but provided his legal perspective on the retrial.
He said the case may be harder to convict now, given how much time has passed since the 2010 murder.
“Just because the prosecution says they have a piece of evidence, until it’s presented in court in front of the jury, who knows what they have,” Carlos said. “What we have here is someone who has entered a plea without the presence of counsel to the highest possible charge he could.”
“I think the appellate court overturned it because lay people, particularly criminal defendants, are severely compromised in their ability to understand the facts and law and nuance of this particular type of charge,” Carlos said.
In National City, Gonzalez’ family said they are once again left waiting for justice.