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First- or second-degree murder? Talamantes case goes to jury

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From page A1 | May 28, 2014 |

TalamantesMugW

Aquelin Talamantes. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

WOODLAND — That Aquelin Talamantes submerged her 5-year-old daughter in a bathtub full of water, pinning her down as the girl likely thrashed about for air, was not in contention Tuesday as attorneys delivered their closing arguments in the Davis woman’s trial.

What a Yolo County jury must decide after hearing two weeks of evidence is what type of murder Talamantes allegedly committed on the morning of Sept. 26, 2013 — first-degree, as prosecutors allege, or second-degree, as the defendant’s attorney claims.

The difference between the two is intent — that is, did Talamantes act willfully, deliberately and with premeditation on the day she drowned Tatiana Garcia, then transported the girl’s lifeless body to a relative’s Sacramento apartment in the trunk of her car? Or did a months-long battle with mental illness prevent her from weighing and understanding the consequences of her actions?

Yolo County Deputy District Attorney Ryan Couzens says there’s no doubt the drowning warrants a first-degree murder verdict, describing it as an “up close and personal” act during which Talamantes, 29, had numerous chances to alter her course of action, but didn’t.

“Drowning takes commitment. …You have to decide to do it, you have to start doing it, and you have to keep doing it,” Couzens told the six-man, six-woman jury during his closing remarks. As the victim struggles to survive, “that person is literally telling you, ‘Help, you are killing me.’ Every second that it takes is another opportunity to make a new decision.”

Even if jurors believe mental illness played a key role in Tatiana’s death — Talamantes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity — that aspect of the case won’t come into play until the trial’s sanity phase, Couzens noted.

But Supervising Deputy Public Defender Sally Fredericksen countered that her client’s mental state is plenty relevant even now, arguing that Talamantes was so far removed from reality last September that she believed police officers patrolling her South Davis street were on the verge of beheading young Tatiana, as she claimed during a jailhouse psychiatric evaluation.

“In her strange view of protection, that is how (Tatiana) died — she thought she was protecting her daughter from the police” by drowning her, despite having never abused or even disciplined her two children in the past, Fredericksen told the jury.

Throughout the trial, Couzens has portrayed Talamantes as a “professional victim” who has consistently blamed others for life’s misfortunes, feigning or embellishing symptoms of mental illness to avoid responsibilities and to satisfy an addiction to prescription drugs. The prosecutor also contends Talamantes resented her children, referring to them as “stupid kids” in conversations with relatives and viewing them as obstacles to a songwriting or modeling career.

“That is the mind-set of Aquelin Talamantes,” Couzens said. He noted her courtroom outburst on the first day of trial, telling the officer who performed a welfare check at her sister’s Glide Drive home before the drowning — but found insufficient grounds for a psychiatric hold — that “you let me down” by not removing the children from the home.

“There’s only one victim in this case — that is Tatiana Garcia, and she was murdered by her mother on Sept. 26,” Couzens said.

Fredericksen, meanwhile, said there’s “no way” Talamantes had the ability to weigh the consequences of her actions that day, given her traumatic childhood that included ongoing molestation and her mother’s violent 1995 murder, followed more recently by erratic behavior that led to several psychiatric hospitalizations in the months before the drowning.

Hallucinations, imaginary voices and Talamantes’ bizarre statements were “all the product of a confused mind,” Fredericksen said, culminating in a diagnosis that she had “acute paranoid psychosis” on the day of her daughter’s death, according to the court-appointed psychiatrist who served as the defense expert for Talamantes’ trial.

“You’ll see what this case is worth is a second-degree murder (conviction), and nothing more,” Fredericksen said.

Couzens used his rebuttal argument to attack the mental illness theory, noting that Talamantes had the presence of mind to conceal her daughter’s body inside a blanket and trash bag, formulate “false statements” to family members claiming someone might have snatched Tatiana, then leave Davis with her 4-year-old son and run several errands before arriving at a sister’s Sacramento apartment complex.

“This is the ‘confused state’ that the defense would have you believe,” the prosecutor said. “Instead of planning her daughter’s rescue, she started planning her own escape — that’s where her priorities are. That is how you know she put herself above her daughter. She could have tried (to save her), and she didn’t.”

Couzens ended his rebuttal by displaying a photograph of Tatiana taken at the UC Davis Medical Center shortly after frantic efforts to save her life had failed. In it, the girl’s skin was ashen, her right hand outstretched toward the camera.

In the courtroom, several of Talamantes’ family members began to weep. Moments later, Talamantes joined them.

Jurors received the case shortly before noon, meeting the remainder of the court day without reaching a verdict. They resumed their deliberations this morning.

— Reach Lauren Keene at lkeene@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene

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