Once, just once, in my life I wondered whether I had it in me to be a criminal defense attorney. I must say "it," because I'm not quite sure how to explain the qualities of a criminal defense attorney. I know that in large part being a criminal defense attorney is an innate part of one's character, in their heart probably before one realizes that is their calling. So, of course, the case that called into question my capacity to pursue that calling was one that tugged at my heart and reached that innate part of me that I still can't put my finger on.
Ten years ago Amanda Zubia was 17 years old, and the mother of a toddler boy, when she was summoned to a home in East Bakersfield. There, four young women including Amanda's cousin, and a young man were waiting for her. Over the course of two days believed to be July 12 and July 13, 2004, in a display of complete depravity, Amanda was tortured and beaten by this group of perpetrators, a fact established by snapshots taken with a disposable camera and found at the home. She was struck, burned with cigarettes, bound and gagged and thrown on the floor to be kicked, had chunks of her hair ripped out, and was taunted.
Amanda was kicked in the face, causing major crushing to her facial bones. Her perpetrators believed that blow to be fatal so they folded her body into a suitcase, where she suffocated and died. She was then stuffed into a 55-gallon oil drum, which was filled halfway with cement, and stored in a garage in a home near East Bakersfield High School. On July 19, 2004 when neighbors complained of the smell coming from the garage, her body was discovered by the police.
For the rest of that summer I was haunted by Amanda's story and the horror that must have been her final hours. She was somebody's little girl. She was somebody's mother. Stuff like that just doesn't happen in Bakersfield. I was especially bothered by the fact that four women were involved in her death. Women just don't do stuff like that. Yet, it didm and they did. And they would need lawyers. What would I do if any one of those were assigned to me for representation? I didn't know, then, if I could do it.
All of Amanda's perpetrators were caught. The defense tactic was an obvious one: Everyone alleged they had the lesser role. That defense was bolstered when the young man involved, Robert Vallejo, was killed in jail. How easy it became to allege that Vallejo was the ringleader and the greatest aggressor, once he was unavailable to deny it.
I think of Amanda often. By now, some of her perpetrators may have been released. Over the years information about the case has become less available and I've been unable to look up articles today to confirm their sentences, but I remember clearly thinking that this girl died a horrible death, and within ten years more than one of these aggressors would be set free. I remember at the time thinking about how unjust the punishments seemed given the depraved nature of the crimes.
I wish I could say that the lawyer in me now believes the punishments were acceptable, but I can't. All I can do is hope for a conversion of the hearts of those women who participated in Amanda's killing. Whether I like it or not, some of them may be walking the streets already. I am, if nothing else, a firm believer that when we set a convicted person free we accept that they have done their time for their crimes and they should be able to carry on with their lives. I hope they can find gainful employment, re-establish meaningful relationships and live fruitful lives. God knows, the odds are stacked against them and they should have someone in their corner. I hope for the best for them, because the worst has already happened to Amanda and there's no undoing it.
Her little boy will be a teenager soon, if he's not already. I pray that he's managed to have a peaceful life.
I pray for Amanda's mother's peace. During those days when she was held captive Amanda called her mother, Blanca, and asked to be picked up from the house. Not knowing what was about to happen, Blanca refused to go get Amanda. I am sure she's wrestled with guilt over the years.
Now a mother myself to a little boy whose suffering and death I witnessed, and to a little girl whom I would lay down my life to protect, I still can't imagine what Blanca's life has been like since Amanda's been gone. I suspect that I am not the only local who still remembers Amanda's case and I hope her mother's heart can be warmed by the knowledge that though Amanda is gone, she is still remembered.