Christopher Malaga is guilty of shooting his friend in the face and killing him over a petty beef in October of 2014.
A jury in Island County Superior Court reached the verdict Thursday afternoon after listening to six days of testimony. They found Malaga guilty of the first-degree murder of Oak Harbor resident Adam Garcia, 21, and the second-degree assault of a witness who tried to stop the fatal confrontation.
Malaga, 24, kept his back to the crowded galley as the verdict was read and Garcia’s many family members and friends cried out.
Garcia’s mother, Bettie Sifuentes, was in the courtroom as the verdict was read. She said the conviction was a relief and means some measure of justice for her son, but it doesn’t bring him back. Without him, she said, she feels empty.
“He was a mama’s boy and he knew it,” she said. “He was my protector. We have a special bond. Every time he went out the door he said, ‘I love you mom.’ ”
Garcia was also the doting father to a daughter who is now 6 years old, as well as a friend to many.
Malaga’s sentencing hearing was set for April 13. He could face up to 37 years in prison under the standard sentencing range.
In closing, Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks posited that Malaga killed his friend because his pride was injured. Just hours before the shooting, Garcia and Malaga had a falling out, both the prosecution and defense agreed; the details of the disagreement were a matter of debate, though the evidence showed that Garcia had kicked Malaga out of his house just hours before the shooting.
Garcia apologized to Malaga several times over texts that were read at trial, but Malaga wasn’t in a forgiving mood, Banks said.
Witness testimony revealed that a confluence of events led to Garcia and Christopher Knowles meeting up with Malaga and Bryce Hill, who was 17 years old at the time, on Castilian Drive just after 3 a.m. on Oct. 18, 2014. Malaga was staying at Hill’s house for the night; Garcia and Knowles were there to buy a small amount of cocaine from Hill.
Both Hill and Knowles testified that Malaga pulled a gun out of his hoodie and pointed it at Garcia. Knowles was the “peacemaker,” Banks said. He got in the middle, pushing Garcia away from Malaga, who then pointed the gun briefly at Knowles.
“We know in a matter of minutes this thing unfolded horribly,” Banks said.
Hill testified that he had backed away and was around the corner when Malaga pulled the trigger, but Knowles said he was standing close by. Banks said the last thing Garcia heard in his young life was Malaga expressing how his feelings were hurt.
“Once he conveyed this to him, he finished the job,” Banks said. “He pulled the trigger.”
Island County Coroner Robert Bishop testified that gunpowder left stippling marks on Garcia’s face, meaning that the gun was likely fired from within a couple of feet. The .40-caliber bullet entered Garcia’s chin and caused catastrophic damage to his spinal cord.
Garcia stopped breathing just after police officers arrived at the scene. They attempted life-saving measures but couldn’t save him.
On Wednesday, Banks rested the prosecution’s case.
Malaga’s attorney, Jennifer Bouwens, called only one witness Wednesday afternoon before resting the defense’s case.
A man who lived next to the site of the shooting testified that he was awaked by the sound of the gunshot. He said he immediately looked out a window and saw a dark-colored sedan turn around in his driveway. The car’s dome light was on, he said, and he saw that the driver was wearing a blue-green hoodie.
In closing arguments, Banks outlined what he referred to as “a virtual tidal wave of evidence” — including witness testimony, text messages and detectives’ interview with Malaga — that showed Malaga acted with premeditation.
Bouwens, however, argued that the prosecution simply didn’t meet the burden of proof.
“Mr. Malaga doesn’t have to prove he is innocent, and he doesn’t have to prove someone else is guilty,” she explained.
Among the holes in the prosecution’s case, she said, is the fact that Knowles initially told police at the scene that the shooter’s name was “Nikki” or “Nico.” He later identified a man named Nico from a photo line-up, saying he was “85 to 90 percent sure” he was the man.
By the time the two witnesses identified Malaga as the shooter, rumors were spreading on social media and across the city that Malaga was guilty, she said.
Knowles only identified Malaga after a woman sent him an image of Malaga, which Bouwens suggested “tainted” the identification. She pointed out that Hill didn’t identify Malaga until 42 hours after the shooting and only after “he was forcibly taken at gunpoint by the police.”
“He was in full self-protection mode,” she said.
Bouwens also questioned the police work. She said a police dog tracked from the scene to a white pickup but officers didn’t take fingerprints or investigate further. She said it was reasonable to think that the real shooter could have hidden next to the pickup.
She also said the police never contacted anyone at the Hill house — and never searched it — even though it was close to the crime scene, they knew the man who left with the shooter was a “tall, skinny black guy” and they knew someone matching that description lived at the home. The canine officer’s dog even tracked right up to the front door of the house.
In fact, Hill testified that Malaga and he were inside the house after returning from the shooting. Police later found Malaga in Bellingham.
Bouwens claimed the police got “tunnel vision” and didn’t follow the evidence.
The prosecutor’s case, she said, consisted of “unreliable and inconsistent witness testimony coupled by an insufficient police investigation.”
She also pointed to the lack of physical evidence. The gun was never recovered and experts at the state crime lab were unable to find evidence on Malaga’s clothes.
“When all evidence is boiled down, all there is is words with no corroboration,” she said.