The trial of a teen suspected of fatally shooting a Cherokee Trail High School student in Centennial began with the prosecution displaying social media messages that appear to show him admitting involvement.
Things “didn’t go as planned and it was the only choice. I’m sorry,” Demarea Deshawn Mitchell allegedly wrote to a person who may have been his girlfriend an hour after Lloyd Alvin Chavez IV, 18, was shot during an attempted robbery of vaping products that Chavez sold.
The morning after the shooting that occurred May 8, 2019, Mitchell sent someone a video that shows him holding a gun, in an attempt to transfer the weapon to another person, according to the prosecution in the trial that took place this July.
On Snapchat — the social media platform Mitchell used to send the messages — Mitchell also appeared to name who was with him during the incident: “Kenny, Dom, (and) Julie” — or Kenneth Gallegos, now 19; Dominic Jarrod Stager, now 19; and Juliana Alexis Serrano, now also 19.
An Arapahoe County District Court jury found Mitchell, now also 19, guilty of first-degree felony murder, attempted aggravated robbery and conspiracy to commit aggravated robbery. The four-day trial concluded July 16.
Mitchell is set to be sentenced Sept. 22 and faces life in prison with the possibility of parole after 40 years.
‘Entire lives ahead of them’
On the night of the incident in May 2019 in east Centennial, the four suspects pulled up to Chavez’s home, where Chavez walked up to a window of the car and may have received cash from Serrano, according to court testimony. Chavez walked away without giving them the vaping product, or he was standing near the car, according to her court testimony.
Mitchell got out of the car and confronted Chavez, Serrano said according to an arrest document.
Chavez threw Mitchell onto the lawn, according to Serrano’s account, and that’s when Chavez was shot, the arrest document says. Chavez was a few inches taller than Mitchell and a bit heavier, according to court testimony in February 2020. Chavez was an accomplished rugby player.
The four suspects were in shock because they didn’t intend to shoot Chavez but, rather, threaten him with the gun if he didn’t give them the vaping product, according to what Serrano had told law enforcement.
Defense attorneys at the trial seized on Serrano for giving “seven different versions” of what happened — five to police, another account during the recent trial of Gallegos and then a seventh during Mitchell’s trial.
“These were kids. They were 17 years old — their entire lives were ahead of them,” said defense attorney Dan McGarvey. He added: “They were going to say or do anything (necessary) to save themselves.”
Stager and Serrano were both offered plea deals to testify against Mitchell and Gallegos, and in return, they were treated as juveniles in court rather than adults. Had they been prosecuted as adults like Mitchell and Gallegos, they would have faced 40 years to life in prison; instead, they received two-year sentences in juvenile settings, according to trial testimony.
Stager brought the gun, which he said he had stolen. Before Chavez died during surgery at a hospital, he told a sheriff’s deputy that “Kenny” — Gallegos — shot him and that the shooter was a junior at Cherokee Trail, according to court testimony. Serrano said it was Mitchell who shot Chavez.
Serrano and Stager were students at Cherokee Trail, and Gallegos was a Grandview High School student who had recently transferred from Cherokee Trail. Mitchell was identified in photos provided by a Cherokee Trail school resource officer.
The shooting occurred in a dark cul-de-sac, and the car’s back windows were tinted, “so it makes sense that (Chavez) said Kenny,” said Gwenn Sandrock, a deputy district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, at the trial.
But ultimately, it didn’t matter who pulled the trigger, the prosecution argued. That’s because a count of first-degree felony murder can be charged against anyone in a group that is allegedly involved in a serious crime in which a death occurs. The charge applies even if a particular member of the group is not believed to have directly caused the death.
“There’s no sliding scale, no apportionment of blame,” Sandrock said, adding that although Gallegos planned the attempted robbery and Stager brought the gun, they don’t get 50% and 25% of the consequences. “That is not the law.”
An Arapahoe County jury on April 9 also found Gallegos guilty of first-degree felony murder, aggravated robbery and conspiracy to commit aggravated robbery.
Under Colorado law, the mandatory penalty for a juvenile convicted of a first-class felony is life in prison with the possibility of parole after 40 years, according to a news release from the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office. That’s the sentence Gallegos received on June 2.
The defense argued that once Chavez and Mitchell engaged in a physical struggle, Mitchell had a right to self-defense that the jury should consider in weighing the charges.
“I do think that there are circumstances (during) an attempted robbery that the right to self-defense arises,” defense attorney Cassandra MacKenzie said, arguing that the point occurred when Chavez “swings Mitchell to the ground.”
A possible struggle over the gun “was not in the course or in furtherance of and not in immediate flight” from Mitchell’s alleged crimes, McGarvey said.
But the prosecution argued that Mitchell can’t rely on a self-defense claim because he was allegedly the initial aggressor.
He “confronts someone, points a gun,” Sandrock said, dismissing “this vague idea that maybe, maybe this was just a tragic death that was in a magical second that was not in the commission or the furtherance of this robbery.”
The prosecution pointed to DNA evidence that corroborates where every person was sitting in the car according to Stager’s and Serrano’s accounts.
Trial testimony also highlighted fresh abrasions on Chavez’s left knee, suggesting Serrano was correct that Chavez was on his hands and knees above Mitchell and that there was a fight, Sandrock said. The scrapes occurred on the day of Chavez’s death, though it was unclear exactly when, according to testimony.
The prosecution also pointed out that Mitchell does not say Gallegos was the shooter in the Snapchat messages.
Two vape pen boxes were found in the front yard of the house where Chavez was shot, said Cheyanne Stjernquist, an Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office crime scene investigator.
In court hearings to determine whether Mitchell would have the chance at a more lenient sentence, like Serrano and Stager, or remain treated as an adult, a psychologist who had analyzed Mitchell described him as suffering from “complex trauma.”
Mitchell had experienced homelessness, endured the deaths of male role models around him and lived with a mother who suffered in abusive relationships, his defenders said.
The psychologist expressed concerns about placing Mitchell in the state Department of Corrections — rather than the state Division of Youth Services — where he could be susceptible to negative influences, and she worried he wouldn’t have access to needed therapy.
“I think there’s kind of a crossroads here, where Demarea could go one way or the other,” Jessica Bartels, the psychologist, said in court in July 2020. With treatment and the proper incarceration environment, Mitchell could live a more conscientious life, she said.
But with the wrong influences, Mitchell also has potential “to become a more sophisticated criminal,” said Bartels, whose analysis assumed that Mitchell was guilty of involvement in the crime.
Judge Ben Leutwyler was not swayed at the time and denied the request to transfer the case to juvenile court.
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