Vega murder case, tinged with race, headed to jury

Published 7:58 pm Friday, March 7, 2014

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Jurors will decide the fate of a teen who shot and killed her stepmother this morning after Circuit Judge Isadore Patrick extended the trial into today.
The jury will hear closing arguments in the murder case of Tyla Vega at 9 a.m. today. Closings had been set for Friday, but attorneys and Patrick were still hammering out jury instructions at 4 p.m. when the jury was sent back to the hotel where they are being sequestered.
“This is an important case for the state and the defendant,” Patrick told jurors. “We want your considered judgement, not your tired judgement,” he said.
Vega, who turned 17 this week, is accused of murder in the May 2, 2011, shooting death of her stepmother, Michelle Vega, at the family home on Jones Road.
The verdict of the jury made up of eight women — five white and three black — and four men — three white and one black — hinges a complex question shrouded with racial overtones.
Was Tyla Vega physically and emotionally abused by her father and stepmother because of her race, and was that abuse severe enough to justify shooting Michelle Vega in the face with a high-powered hunting rifle?
Defense attorney Marshall Sanders contends Tyla Vega was beaten and neglected because of her race. Her biological mother is black. Her father, Jason Vega, is white, as was Michelle Vega.
Tyla Vega and her paternal grandmother and a paternal aunt testified that she had been excluded from family photos and family vacations  because of her race. Sanders presented a family photo that did not include Tyla Vega. He also showed a picture of a wall at the family’s Jones Road home that displayed photos of everyone in the family except Tyla Vega.
District Attorney Ricky Smith, however, presented three photos of Tyla Vega with members of Michelle Vega’s family. There was no indication if the photos were ever displayed in Tyla Vega’s home.
Some of the abuse allegations were detailed and specific, including one in which Tyla Vega claimed she was forced to perform squats while holding books and a jug of water on her head. If the jug fell, she said, she was beaten.
She related the story both in a taped interrogation shown to jurors and on the stand.
Psychologist Dr. Gerald O’Brien testified Friday that Tyla Vega suffered from post traumatic stress disorder caused by years of abuse.
“In my opinion, it made her likely to perceive things mistakenly,” said O’Brien who performed a court-ordered mental evaluation on Tyla Vega.
“She could not make difficult or instantaneous decisions,” he told jurors.
O’Brien’s diagnosis came after examining Tyla Vega on March 18, 2013, and June 24, 2013. He also said he drew some of his conclusions from evaluations performed by psychologist Dr. Billy Fox, who in a pre-trial hearing said he was unqualified to perform evaluations on adolescents with post traumatic stress disorder.
Prosecutors contend Tyla Vega had ample opportunities to tell teachers, youth court officials, her school guidance counselor, relatives law enforcement agents of abuse.
“There’s 40-something pages of opportunity for you to tell what’s going on,”  Smith said to Tyla Vega during cross examination Friday morning as he gripped transcript of her interrogation by Warren County investigator Stacy Rollison.
Tyla Vega’s story presented from the Thursday and Friday barely resembled the one she told Rollison after she was arrested in Greenville six days after Michelle Vega’s death. During her more than four hours on the stand, Tyla Vega said multiple times that she felt uncomfortable talking to anyone about the abuse she suffered at home. She also asserted that several prosecution witnesses ranging from Rollison to her school guidance counselor lied while on the stand, and she denied ever meeting youth court intake officer Horace Allen who said he met with her on multiple occasions,
O’Brien said the isolated, depressed feelings was possibly caused by mental illness.
“It’s not surprising. This is a pattern that is consistent with PTSD,” he said.
One of the biggest inconsistencies between Tyla Vega’s testimony and her interrogation was regarding Michelle Vega’s phone use before the shooting. In the initial interview, Tyla Vega said Michelle Vega was holding her cellphone and was about to make a call before she was shot. She recanted the statement on the stand.
Forensic evidence shows, bruising on Michelle Vega’s face and hand is consistent with her holding a phone to her face at the time she was shot, Smith said.
If convicted, Vega could face life in prison. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling, however, says mandatory life sentences for juveniles is unconstitutional.