Maurico Cerritos, 24, of Herndon, will be at least 56 years old before he is released from prison for killing a woman on Christmas 2003.
Circuit Court Judge James Chamblin sentenced Cerritos Tuesday to 40 years in jail on a felony murder charge and 10 years on a robbery charge. The sentences are to run concurrently. A jury found Cerritos guilty in August of killing Margarita Gonzalez, a 40-year-old Herndon resident who died of asphyxiation. The woman’s body was found Dec. 26 on Shaw Road in Sterling.
Chamblin added a three-year, post-release probation term for each offense, to run concurrently. A judge can impose the latter penalty when no part of the sentence is suspended. A defendant could be placed under post-release supervision from six months to three years and return to jail if he breaks the law.
DEPUTY PUBLIC DEFENDER Bonnie Hoffman said she will appeal the conviction, the sentence, and the post-release term. She said the latter issue is unconstitutional. “It expands the sentence,” she said.
Prior to the sentencing, Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney James Fisher said the judicial process until this point has weighed on the side of the defendant, with an assumption of innocence. It was now time to remember Gonzalez, “a kindly and gentle woman.” He said Chamblin should consider eight issues before deciding Cerritos’ fate. “You have nothing more than a sinister murderer who stole the life of another human being,” he said, his voice rising loud during the second half of the message.
Chamblin said he followed the sentencing recommendation of the jury. Most states permit juries only to decide innocence or guilt, but Virginia allows juries to propose sentences. “It tells judges how the community feels about crime,” he said. “I find no reason to suspend any part or modify what they did.”
He said the sentence was below the maximum sentence of life and at the high end of the guidelines. Cerritos could have served 20 years to life, fisher said.
PRE-SENTENCE INVESTIGATIONS are not available to the public, but Hoffman provided clues about Cerritos. The Hispanic man was raised by his grandmother since he was 1 year old. He attended school until third grade, when he dropped out to work on the family farm in El Salvador. He has prior convictions of driving without a license and driving under the influence of alcohol. There was no indication of drug treatment, she said.
Hoffman argued that the report should not say Gonzalez was strangled with a rope, because the medical examiner only said she died of asphyxiation. Chamblin disputed that argument, saying the testimony indicated furrowing marks on the front and side of her neck. But he accepted the argument for the sake of moving forward in the sentencing, saying he didn’t want this to create an issue that could be appealed.
Fisher argued in favor of a stiffer penalty then the judge imposed, because the jury was not aware that Cerritos would be eligible for release after serving a minimum of 85 percent of the sentence. Early discharge is permitted for good behavior. He recommended 47 years and one month.
He asked the judge to take into consideration the heinous nature of the act itself, the motive behind the crimes, the planning and preparation, the innocence of the victim, and the need to protect society from the defendant.
Fisher urged Chamblin to consider the impact on the community of the murder of an innocent woman who made her living selling jewelry. “It promulgates fear,” he said.
He said the sentence also should reflect, “The motivation of this offender is nothing more than … greed. And there isn’t one iota or ounce of remorse.”
HOFFMAN ARGUED that Chamblin should not be punished for not having remorse. Her client has maintained his innocence. “It is no reason to punish him more,” she said. The deputy public defender pointed to numerous news accounts of people being found innocent years after being incarcerated based on new evidence.
Fisher countered, “He maintained his innocence, but the fact is he’s guilty.”
She also said the pre-sentence investigation provided no reason to reject the jury’s recommendation, she said. “It is appropriate given the nature of the offenses,” she said. “The two offenses are related to each other.”
With the sentence, Cerritos would not be free until he was in his 50s, she said. “He will be a different man than who you see today.”
BEFORE THE SENTENCING, Chamblin listened to three motions to set aside the verdict. Hoffman moved to set aside the verdict on the basis of insufficient evidence or “intent” that her client committed the crimes. She also maintained that her client was involved only because one or two other people threatened him and his family if he didn’t participate. “If he is under death threat, he lacks the intent,” she said.
Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Robert Vernail disagreed. He said Cerritos admitted to calling Gonzalez to lure her out of her apartment and take her jewelry. “That was the plan from the get go,” he said.
Hoffman also asked the court to grant a mistrial, because of the emotional outburst at the beginning of the trial. Gonzalez’s sister Maria Sibrian cried out.
She also tried to get the verdict put aside, because the Commonwealth’s Attorneys Office failed to introduce a statement by Cerritos’ girlfriend, Britt Bruzal.
In denying the second motion, Chamblin addressed Cerritos’ lawyer. “Miss Hoffman, I know it is frustrating, very frustrating.”
FISHER SAID he was satisfied and pleased with the judge’s decision. “A jury sentence is something that should be honored and respected, because it is the most pure form of the community sentiment about a particular crime,” he said.
Law enforcement officials continue to search for two people believed to be involved in the strangling death. Cerritos has named two men as the murderers, but Fisher said the defendant cannot be believed.