By Deb Murphy
The trial of Raymond Bencoma boils down to the question of whether he knew he was pointing a 45 caliber, semiautomatic pistol at four officers walking up his driveway around 3 a.m. the morning of August 26.
In her closing statement Tuesday, prosecutor Dee Shepherd maintained he did. The patrol cars approached his residence on Winuba with their parking lights on. As the officers walked toward Bencoma’s trailer, positioned behind a main house, one of the officers had a flashlight, on low with his hand over the lens.
But it was dark, was the defense attorney Josh Hillemeier’s argument. So dark, the officer had testified he turned on the flashlight because he couldn’t see his feet.
Bencoma knew they were law enforcement, said Shepherd, after playing a tape a Bencoma phone call from jail where he named the officer who shot him.
But, said Hillemeier, Bencoma also talked about a motion-sensor light at the site and put the named officer in the front of the “pack.” In fact, there was no evidence of a motion sensor light and the officer was in the center of the group approaching the trailer. In addition, the defense’s investigator reviewed the police report, naming all four officers, on September 20; the phone conversation took place October 4. “The phone call does look bad,” he admitted, “but there were errors in that conversation.”
The police wanted to do a “knock and talk” response to a report of domestic abuse, said Shepherd. “They made the strategical decision to approach in stealth.”
The officers’ testimony indicated they noticed the slider to the trailer was open and saw a movement to the left. The flashlight was turned in that direction. It was Bencoma standing near a shed with the pistol.
“They (the police officers) approached in a way that put everyone in danger,” said the defense. “They had time to say ‘F***,’ or maybe ‘Hey,’ but they didn’t have time to say ‘drop your weapon?’”
Monday’s testimony outlined a series of altercations in the immediate neighborhood the day before the incident, inferring Bencoma felt he could be threatened. But, Shepherd pointed out in her closing Bencoma was not a target in their altercations
The day started with testimony from Vincente Guerrero, a fingerprint analyst with the California Department of Justice’s Fresno regional office. Bencoma’s fingerprints were not found on the gun, the magazine, cartridge or cartridge casings, he said. One latent print was found but it was not the defendant’s.
Under cross, Guerrero said one unidentifiable print with two or three matches to Bencoma’s left index finger was found, but it takes eight matching points for identification. He also testified it was not unusual to find no identifiable fingerprints on fire arms due to the surfaces and other variables.
With the end of the evidentiary part of the trial, Judge Brian Lamb read through the charges—four charges of assault with a fire arm on a police officer, possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon and receiving stolen property—and outlined lesser offenses to the four assault charges.
He defined the law on assault with a fire arm charge: the gun is displayed in a menacing manner. A defendant doesn’t have to actually touch someone to be guilty of assault. He also defined self-defense as “reasonably believed to be in eminent danger,” with the limitation that no more force is used than would be reasonably necessary for protection. “If the threat is considered reasonable,” Lamb said, “it doesn’t have to be true.”
So now the jury has to decide if Bencoma knew he was pointing a gun, with a bullet in the chamber, at police officers or he was protecting himself from whatever was approaching his home.