A Loudoun County Circuit Court jury today found Sergio Ramon Zuniga Robles guilty of second-degree murder in the fatal stabbing of his half-brother on Feb. 1, 2016.
The jury deliberated for about 10 hours after hearing three days of testimony. The murder conviction carries a sentence of five to 40 years in prison. The jury recommended a sentence of 25 years. When the case returns to court for final sentencing Judge Jeanette A. Irby may reduce, but not increase, the jury’s sentence.
Prosecutors said Zuniga Robles came home from work and got into an argument with the victim, Mario Arturo Ochoa Robles—either over his brother’s failure to take the dog out for a walk on schedule or over a request to pay back a $40 restaurant tab.
Zuniga Robles testified on Wednesday that he was doing dishes in the kitchen of the Plaza Street townhouse they shared when Ochoa Robles began insulting him and then pushing him, trying to provoke a fight. He told the jury he tried to stop the fight and get his brother to leave the house even while Ochoa Robles was swinging at him with a kitchen knife.
The argument ended with Zuniga Robles standing over Ochoa Robles’ badly injured body with two bloody kitchen knives in his hands, a scene that was described by Zuniga Robles’ fiancée who came downstairs to see what all the yelling was about.
Zuniga Robles said he had picked up six knives that had been scattered around the apartment during the fight and was holding them in a bundle in front of his stomach when his brother lunged or fell into him.
Ochoa Robles was taken to the hospital, where he died. He had multiple stab wounds in his chest; many were superficial slashing type cuts, but one was deeper—and fatal.
The circumstances Zuniga Robles described—an unprovoked attack followed by an accidental stabbing—lacked the malice and intent required to sustain a murder charge. However, prosecutors stressed that Zuniga Robles’ story has changed numerous times during the investigation. He initially told investigators that his brother walked through the door, said he had been attacked and then fell to the ground. Later, he said that there was a man—a suspected drug dealer—standing behind his brother when he came through the door. Prosecutors said that Zuniga Robles had a whole year while he sat in the county jail to think up the latest version.
During his testimony, Zuniga Robles said he had lied to investigators to protect his brother. Ochoa Robles was on probation and could have been sent to prison if he was convicted of assaulting him, Zuniga Robles said. Zuniga Robles said he had spent $50,000 on legal and court fees to help his brother in a previous malicious wounding case in California.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Shamis told the jury that the common thread in all the stories Zuniga Robles told was that he failed to implicate himself in any way.
The jury began deliberations Thursday afternoon and continued Friday, when courts normally are closed in Virginia for Lee-Jackson Day.
Zuniga Robles was indicted on a charge of first-degree murder. The key element of the jurors’ work was to determine whether he was guilty of that charge or of the lesser offenses of second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter in the death, or whether to issue a not guilty verdict if they believed the stabbing was an accident or that Zuniga Robles acted in self-defense.
A first-degree murder verdict required that the jury find Zuniga Robles acted with malice and intended to kill his brother. In handling down a second-degree murder conviction, the jury found that he acted with malice—such as ill will, vindictiveness or vengefulness—but not with the intent to kill his brother. A lesser voluntary manslaughter conviction was possible if the jury believed that the stabbing occurred during an uncontrolled heat of passion.
Zuniga Robles also was convicted of stabbing in the commission of a felony, a charge the carries of sentence of up to five years in prison. The jury recommended a sentence of 1 year on that charge.