Saturday, 25 May 2024

Teen pleads guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 2008 fatal stabbing

CLEARLAKE – A teenager charged with stabbing to death a classmate last summer entered a guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter on Monday.


Gabrielle Varney, 18, originally was charged with murder for stabbing 17-year-old Heather Valdez to death in an after-school confrontation near their homes in Clearlake on June 5, 2008.


However, Varney's defense attorneys Stephen and Angela Carter reached an agreement on Friday with the District Attorney's Office and prosecutor John DeChaine that allowed Varney to plead guilty to the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter with a special allegation of using a knife.


When she's sentenced on June 8, Varney will face between four and 12 years in prison, said Stephen Carter. With time served and inmate credits she'll automatically receive, Varney could be out of prison in three years.


Carter said the plea agreement means Varney will have a life outside of prison, and Valdez's family won't have to suffer through a lengthy trial.


The Carters plan to put on a lengthy sentencing hearing with a large number of witnesses who will testify as to the ongoing, severe bullying and emotional abuse that they allege Varney underwent at the hands of Valdez in an effort to shed light on the complex relationship between the two young women.


At that time Valdez's family also will have the opportunity to offer victim impact statements, said District Attorney Jon Hopkins.


Hopkins said Monday that the plea agreement properly defines the crime Varney committed when she killed Valdez. Hopkins said his office won't make a decision about what sentence to seek until they see a probation report being prepared for the sentencing.


Hopkins said he didn't believe a jury would find Varney acted in self-defense, but he and his team also had concluded that a jury wouldn't accept that Varney had acted with the malice aforethought necessary for a murder conviction, based largely on the evidence that supports that Valdez's death resulted from a sudden quarrel or heat of passion.


“I think it fits the facts,” Carter said of the agreed-upon plea. He said he believed he had an excellent chance of getting a not guilty verdict on the murder charge.


The concept of a sudden quarrel or heat of passion is the leading theory in California law that supports voluntary manslaughter, said Carter. “It's the emotional mind in action,” he said.


The other theory is that of “imperfect self-defense,” in which the person believes that they are in peril and overreacts. “They think this is what they need to do but they're wrong,” said Carter, noting that either theory fits this case.


The plea agreement was in discussion for some time, but it was settled after the District Attorney's Office met with Valdez's mother on Friday to explain the agreement to her. “Her sentiments were that she trusted our judgment and understood what we were looking at,” said Hopkins.


He added that she wasn't asked to sign on. “She did not have to make that decision,” he said. “You try not to put that on the victim's family.”


The prosecution and defense are divided over whether or not the case illustrates an example of bullying exploding into violence.


Hopkins said he doesn't know if evidence of bullying exists. His staff researched the relationships between Varney and Valdez, who were classmates at Carle High School.


The girls at one time had been friends, spending time together at each others' homes, said Hopkins. However, at some point a disagreement arose.


“I wouldn't call that bullying, I would call that a spat between two teenagers,” he said.


The stabbing occurred after the girls were let off the school bus near their homes at the end of the school day. Other students who were on the school bus told Hopkins' investigators that “things that were said back and forth by both of them sounded like they were liable to get into a fight.”


Once off the bus, Hopkins said Varney pulled a knife out of her pants pocket. It’s that 4-inch folding pocket knife which Varney allegedly used to fatally stab Valdez in the neck.


Carter said the case is a complex one, involving a long-term friendship between the girls that went sour and became very negative very fast. He pointed out that relationships between adolescent girls sometimes contain aspects of bullying.


He didn't believe having the knife with her was a sign of intent on the part of Varney. Clearlake can be a rough town, especially for a girl who's not very assertive and has low self-esteem, he added.


Carter said Varney is a bright girl who needs to serve her term and try to move forward into an environment where she can grow. “She's prepared mentally and spiritually to handle incarceration for a lengthy period,” said Carter.


Varney didn't have all of the nurturing she needed, but he said she has promise. “It's horrible because she didn't intend the result,” he said. “She overreacted to the threat, and she didn't understand what she was doing.”


The resolution in the Varney case comes as the Carters are awaiting a verdict in the trial of another teenager, Erik McPherson, 19, accused of stabbing to death Nicolai Chukreeff in May of 2008.


“They're very different cases, they're very different people,” said Carter.


The jury in the McPherson case began deliberating on April 21, said Carter, and will continue deliberating on Tuesday. That trial has been under way for two and a half months, which Carter estimates is his second-longest trial in the local courts.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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