SEATTLE — Jurors last month determined David Villalobos-Denning fired in self-defense when he fatally shot a man in an Auburn park, making him one of at least three people to be found not guilty of murder this year in King County.
Villalobos-Denning, who was found guilty of a firearms charge in the 2020 killing of Hiram Figueroa, was released Friday after spending nearly 2 1/2 years in jail. His acquittal comes as rising numbers of people are using guns to settle disputes, officials say, and the standard of legal self-defense continues to evolve.
In cases where a defendant asserts self-defense, prosecutors must disprove that claim beyond a reasonable doubt. In finding prosecutors hadn’t met that burden, the 12-member jury that found Villalobos-Denning not guilty of murder went a step further, handing down a fairly rare verdict that his use of force was lawful.
That means Villalobos-Denning, 22, can seek reimbursement for the wages he would have made during the time he was locked up, said defense attorney David Montes, who represented Villalobos-Denning alongside attorney Thomas Smith.
“From the first time we talked, his story was always identical,” Montes said of his client’s account of what happened June 18, 2020, at Auburn’s Brannan Park.
Montes, who said his client’s February offer to plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter was ignored, questioned why prosecutors decided to take the case to trial while digging out from a historic backlog of criminal cases that piled up as a result of court shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“From my perspective, I don’t think they took a careful look at what we were saying, which pointed out a lot of contradictory evidence” provided by members of Figueroa’s family, Montes said. “I just don’t think the prosecutor ever — including at trial — really vetted their case to see what they could actually prove.”
Dan Clark, the county’s chief criminal deputy prosecutor, couldn’t speak to the specifics of the case, which was tried by two of his colleagues. But he said prosecutors — who are required to file criminal charges within 72 hours of an arrest — debate and review charging decisions and amend or dismiss charges when more information comes to light.
Clark said the prosecutor’s office doesn’t track which cases result in guilty and not guilty jury verdicts because prosecutors are directed to take on tough cases and pursue just outcomes, not convictions or prison sentences. Prosecutors, he said, are ethically bound to pursue cases when they have probable cause to believe someone committed a crime.
Clark said prosecutors here and nationally are responding to a spike in homicides over the past couple of years, as well as increasing instances of people drawing guns to settle arguments or defend against perceived offenses, such as in road rage incidents.
“I think the notion of self-defense may be expanding in Washington and may be expanding nationally,” he said. “I think there are expanding notions of what is allowed in society to react to a perceived danger and that’s playing out in the court system.
“The jury is made up of 12 individuals from our community, who all come to the table with their own understanding and moral compass when it comes to what is an appropriate reaction to a perceived danger,” Clark said.
Police encountered a chaotic scene when they arrived at the Auburn park where Figueroa was killed, and many of the witnesses were initially uncooperative with investigators, who largely relied on statements from Figueroa’s family about how the shooting unfolded, Montes said.
“I think part of the problem for the family was they weren’t actually paying attention to what was happening — there was so much going on, they didn’t really have any reason to be watching until the shots were fired,” he said. “So they all sort of saw bits and pieces.”
The jury heard that Figueroa’s two daughters had been involved in a fight the night before with their cousin and others, including Villalobos-Denning, who punched one of the daughters in the face, Montes said. The cousin demanded a rematch, and Figueroa accompanied his wife and daughters to the park, where Figueroa, 49, punched his 18-year-old niece, knocking her unconscious, Montes said.
Figueroa’s wife and one daughter’s boyfriend confronted Villalobos-Denning, who pointed a gun at the wife’s head and told her to back up, then tucked the gun into his sweatshirt when she complied, Montes said of the testimony presented at trial.
After punching his niece, Figueroa moved toward Villalobos-Denning and lifted his shirt to show what turned out to be a BB gun tucked into his waistband, Montes said.
Several witnesses testified that Villalobos-Denning told Figueroa to back up, according to Montes. But Figueroa kept coming toward him, the witnesses said, and Villalobos-Denning opened fire.
“In David Villalobos-Denning’s life, if an adult is angry and violent, he’s seen that template before — and he knows that that’s going to mean anger and violence toward him,” said Montes, explaining his client’s mindset at the time of the shooting.
Figueroa died shortly after arriving at Harborview Medical Center. Efforts to contact his family about the jury’s verdict were not successful.
Villalobos-Denning’s testimony to the jury was backed up by physical evidence, including the locations of shell casings and the autopsy report, which refuted some witness accounts that Figueroa had been shot in the back while trying to break up the fight, Montes said.
The jury’s verdict represented the second time one of Montes’ clients has been acquitted of a murder charge this year.
He also represented Deon Robinson Jr., who asserted he fired in self-defense when he killed Liban Dahir in December 2018 in Tukwila. A jury in June found Robinson not guilty of second-degree murder, court records show.
Though police and prosecutors don’t refer or file criminal charges when they don’t have evidence to disprove self-defense, Clark said it’s important to take cases that impact community safety to trial. He pointed as an example to the January 2020 gunbattle in downtown Seattle that killed one person and injured six others.
A jury in September found Marquise Tolbert not guilty of murder and assault for his role in the six-second gunfight after his attorneys presented evidence he fired in self-defense.
“I think we would be remiss if we didn’t put cases like that in front of a jury,” Clark said.