San Antonio teen gets life in prison for killing Army veteran
The jury that convicted a San Antonio teen of murder in the 2015 shooting death of a U.S. Army veteran at a bus stop swifly sentenced him Thursday to life in prison.
David Alexander Zuniga, 18, slumped in his chair and held his head low as state District Judge Sid Harle read the sentence, which included a $10,000 fine.
Jesse Lee Richards, 28, had just gotten off of work and was waiting for a bus around 10 p.m. Dec. 20, 2015, at Porter Street and South New Braunfels when Zuniga and his brother and co-defendant, Daniel Torres, approached him.
Both admitted to police they intended to rob him. Richards was shot once in the chest, got up and ran a few steps before he fell to the street. He was pronounced dead at San Antonio Military Medical Center. The jury took less than 15 minutes to find Zuniga guilty Wednesday.
The Richards family declined to give a victim impact statement when the sentence was read.
In earlier testimony, Richards’ grandfather, Gary Richards, said he and his wife raised their grandson as their own. Jesse Richards had mental health and substance abuse problems when he got back from his third tour of duty in Iraq but was working hard and “was getting his life back together,” Gary Richards said.
He said his grandson decided to change his name from Hickman to Richards while in the Army.
“It was an honor for him to take my name,” Gary Richards said.
Richards’ mother, Kelly Hartman, cried as she recalled her son, whom she communicated with either by phone, text or Facebook three to four times a week.
“I can still see my son laying in that casket,” she said through tears. “I’ll never forget.”
Hartman said she was proud of her son and his service.
“We’re all angry this happened,” Hartman said. “It was stupid, it was senseless, it was a waste of his life and ours, and he (Zuniga) ruined his own life.”
Zuniga admitted numerous times to police in a video interview after his arrest that he came up with a plan to rob Richards at gunpoint because one of his brothers needed money to pay rent and bills. Zuniga also told police on numerous occasions that he shot Richards, according to testimony.
Zuniga recanted those statements when he testified in his own defense Wednesday. He said he took the rap for his brother because he was afraid Torres would kill him and their mother if he didn’t.
Torres, 20, also is charged with murder and is awaiting trial.
On Thursday, Zuniga’s attorney, Kenneth E. Baker reminded the jury that Zuniga was abandoned by his parents, spent the majority of his life in and out of foster care, and was in the custody of Child Protective Services at the time of the incident.
Baker made reference to the symbolism of the Bexar County Justice Center being across the street from San Fernando Cathedral and said justice must be tempered with mercy.
“My client never had a father or a mother to tell him right from wrong,” Baker said. “Back then (in 2015), he was a child. He had a past and a future. I ask you to give him a future and a chance to get out and have a life.”
Prosecutor Josh Somers said Richards, who had just moved to San Antonio months before his death, was trying to rebuild his life after doing three tours in Iraq and being honorably discharged.
“He didn’t die in the field of battle overseas. He died on the road, at a bus stop,” Somers said.
Prosecutor Kaytlyn Knowles reminded the jury that at no time did Zuniga ever express remorse or offer an apology to Richards’ family — either in the video interview with police or when he took the stand Wednesday.
“Jesse Richards’ last moment was spent on a VIA bus, texting his grandfather,” she said. “He was murdered by two guys he would have laid down his life for. Justice for Jesse? Give him life.”
Zuniga will have to serve at least 30 years before he is eligible for parole.