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Victor Martinez, an undocumented immigrant who broke into the home of Santa Maria resident Marilyn Pharis in July three years ago and beat and strangled her, was found guilty of special circumstances murder Wednesday by a Superior Court jury.

Pharis, 64, died eight days after the attack on Aug. 1, 2015 at Marian Regional Medical Center, from a blood clot that developed in her leg and traveled to her lung.

In a crowded courtroom, the verdict was handed down after two days of deliberations and a month of testimony including details from Pharis’ autopsy reports, Martinez’s taped confession and DNA evidence found in her North Dejoy Street home following the July 24, 2015 attack.

Pharis worked as a satellite tracker for Vandenberg Air Force Base at the time of her death.

The jury also found the special circumstances of robbery, burglary, sexual penetration and the personal use of a deadly weapon — a hammer — to be true.

A special torture allegation was dismissed.

The verdict means Martinez will be sentenced to life in prison without parole. A sentencing date will be set July 2 at 8:30 a.m., and he was taken into custody Wednesday with no bail. 

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Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen talks with media following the verdict Wednesday in the Marilyn Pharis trial.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen who headed the prosecution team with Deputy District Attorney Fabiana Fede, thanked the jury for finally bringing justice for Pharis after three years, deliberating over what she called "an incredibly difficult case for so many reasons -- due to the sheer level of violence and senselessness."

"Nothing will ever bring her back, but at least this person who committed the most horrific, vicious offense can never hurt anyone again," said Bramsen, who also thanked the medical staff at Marian Regional Medical Center for doing all they could to save Pharis' life.

"Marilyn was an amazing person who contributed significantly to our society," she added. "Someone broke into her home, killed her in her own room so it's a tragedy and I'm so thankful that justice was done."

An emotional Joyce Dudley, Santa Barbara County district attorney, said her office has "lived and breathed" the case for three years.

"Having been present at the autopsy and meeting her family, there's an overwhelming feeling of sadness today but at the same time, there's a deep appreciation for the work of Santa Maria Police and the District Attorney's Office," said Dudley, wiping her eyes as she looked at Bramsen outside of court, who also began tearing up. 

The case garnered national media attention following Martinez's arrest in 2015, including remarks from the Trump administration on the topic of stronger immigration reform. At the time he was charged, Martinez's attorney maintained that his citizenship status had nothing to do with his case.

Martinez, from Mexico, has prior assault and drug convictions and was flagged by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to be deported before the attack. However, immigration officials were not notified because Martinez’s charges were reduced to a misdemeanor, which meant he didn’t meet the threshold  for deportation.

Martinez was arrested on drug and weapons charges July 17, 2015 about a week before he broke into Pharis's home. He pleaded no contest July 20 and was released. 

Throughout the trial, the defense and prosecution battled over the cause of Pharis’ death, and whether or not Martinez had the mental capacity to show intent to burglarize or assault/kill Pharis the moment he entered her home.

It was also revealed that Pharis had a pre-existing condition of atrial fibrillation, making her prone to developing deep vein thrombosis.

Martinez's co-defendant, Jose Villagomez, was originally charged in the case but settled after pleading guilty to first-degree murder a week into trial. Villagomez, who is a U.S. citizen from Ukiah, will be sentenced July 19 to 25 years to life in prison.

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Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210

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Courts/Public Safety Reporter