A jury on Friday found defendant Jonathan Highley guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting of Anthony San Juan outside an Orcutt bar on March 4, 2017. He now faces 25 years to 51 years in prison.
Highley, 37, also was found guilty of two gun enhancements and assault with a firearm on a woman only identified as Catheryn A.
After the verdict was read at Santa Maria Superior Court, Highley was taken back into custody until his sentencing Jan. 11. The maximum sentence Highley could receive is 51 years in state prison, and he will be required to serve the full amount before a possible parole.
San Juan, 43, died of a gunshot wound to the head in the early morning hours of March 4, 2017, outside of Elmer's bar in Orcutt.
Minutes before the verdict was read, San Juan's family and friends who took up two rows of the Santa Maria Superior courtroom, all held hands and clutched tissues. Upon announcement of the verdict, they started crying and erupted in a short burst of a cheer.
San Juan's wife Sara, and his parents, father Anthony San Juan Sr. and mother, Cheryl San Juan, didn't miss a single court hearing in the case, from the time it was first filed by the District Attorney's Office almost two years ago through four weeks of the trial that began Oct. 23.
The victim's mother, Cheryl, broke her silence Friday, expressing gratitude for the prosecution who brought justice for her son.
"It's been our prayer and our hope that it would be first-degree [conviction]," Cheryl said. "The evidence was all there, and Anne Nudson did a wonderful job, and we thank her for that."
After the verdict, Nudson extended her thanks to the County Sheriff's Office, Deputy Wayne Flick and the jury, "who saw the truth in the case."
As soon as the verdict was read, Nudson and Flick hugged the family and friends of San Juan.
"This was a devastating situation," Nudson told the family as she fought back tears. "I really feel for all of you and hope we can finally get some closure on this part of the case."
Nudson added that she was glad the trial portion of the case was finished so that San Juan's family can have some peace during the holidays.
"I don't think this is a case that has any winners in it," she added. "Nothing I do or what the courts can do can fill the space of your heart when you lost a loved one."
San Juan's wife, Sara, left quickly after the verdict was read, but spoke last year after Highley was ordered to stand trial and pledged to stand by her husband.
"We did not choose this for ourselves," she said in December 2017. "My children experienced their first Thanksgiving without their father; such an unnecessary shame."
Friday's verdict comes after four weeks of trial testimony and a day of jury deliberations.
The crux of the case boiled down to Highley’s mental state in the moments leading up to the shooting at the Elmer's bar parking lot just after 1:30 a.m.
During his closing arguments Thursday, defense attorney Mark Owens argued Highley was intoxicated after consuming alcohol continuously for nine hours after getting off work March 3, 2017, from his job as a stationary engineer at Vandenberg Air Force Base Power Plant.
He also pointed out that the third fight Highley engaged in resulted in a blow to the head, which impaired his judgement and prevented him from making a rational decision.
In her closing arguments, Deputy District Attorney Anne Nudson maintained Highley was a violent bully, displaying aggressive behavior the night of the shooting when he punched two people and shot San Juan for no justifiable reason.
Before he was shot, San Juan, who had a blood alcohol content level of .32, attempted to escape from Highley but fell as he was fleeing and was crawling on his hands and knees when Highley shot him in the head, according to Nudson.
Nudson maintained Highley made a deliberate choice to kill someone, evidenced by the fact he walked back to his apartment, located across the alley from Elmer's bar, to retrieve a gun, and that being drunk doesn't absolve him of shooting San Juan.
Highley's wife Mayra Perez, an undocumented immigrant, was originally charged along with her husband for being an accessory after the fact; she was sentenced to five years probation and was deported out of the country.