In ruling rarely afforded to accused murderers, a judge Tuesday cut the $1 million bail to $50,000 apiece for two Fresno women charged with the Jan. 1 stabbing of a fellow Army National Guard reservist.
Judge Alan Simpson said in Fresno County Superior Court that neither Jessica Wills nor Jacqueline Benavides was a danger to the community or at risk of leaving the area before they stand trial in the killing of Brian Santos.
Simpson also noted that the two defendants have no prior criminal history, have strong ties to Fresno, and were involved in community and charity work, including helping the Ronald McDonald House.
Wills and Benavides, who are both 23 and married to each other, used their shackled hands to wipe tears from their eyes when the ruling was announced in front of dozens of supporters who packed the courtroom.
Their families planned to post bail immediately so they could be released from the Fresno County Jail by Tuesday evening.
If convicted of murder, the defendants could face life in prisonThe defendants will return to court for a status hearing on March 18.
Outside court, defense attorneys Michael Aed and Serita Rios said Simpson made the correct call because Santos was beating his girlfriend when Wills and Benavides intervened. They said Santos was so enraged, he took off his shirt, pinned his girlfriend to the ground, and challenged the defendants to a fight.
"There are no winners in this case," Aed said, noting that the defendants and Santos and his girlfriend served together in the Army National Guard and were friends.
But Aed said Santos has prior arrests for domestic violence and drinking. "He a different person when he drinks," Aed said.
According to Fresno police, Wills, Benavides, Santos and his girlfriend went out together for a New Year's celebration. The night turned deadly when a dispute started between Santos and his girlfriend about 2 a.m. outside Wills and Benavides' home on Shields Avenue, east of Clovis Avenue.
Wills told police she stabbed Santos after he allegedly attacked his girlfriend. Benavides was arrested after an autopsy showed that two different weapons were used to kill Santos, police said.
In court Tuesday, prosecutor Stephanie Savrnoch opposed a reduction in bail, saying Santos' girlfriend had told police that she didn't need any assistance from the defendants. "She asked them to leave them alone," Savrnoch said.
In a 911 call, Wills also could be heard cursing and saying she was going to stab Santos for "chasing that little girl," referring to Santos' girlfriend, Savrnoch said.
"She made a decision to stab the victim," Savrnoch told the judge.
Benavides also was deceptive in talking to the 911 operator, Savrnoch said. Benavides told the operator she didn't know Santos and gave a confusing account of what was happening, Savrnoch said.
Court records say Wills used a buck knife to kill Santos. The knife was found outside the couple's home. In court, Savrnoch said a second bloody knife was found inside the home, hidden under a bed mattress.
But Aed told Simpson that police reports clearly show that Santos instigated the deadly encounter. Aed also said Santos' girlfriend told police that Wills and Benavides "were trying to protect me because we are battle buddies."
In his ruling, Simpson noted the two defendants, Santos and his girlfriend shared a common bond. He also said Benavides made two 911 calls and that Wills reacted after she saw what Santos was doing to his girlfriend. "It's not like she picked out a random victim," the judge said.
Wills also performed CPR on Santos when police arrived, Simpson said.