Former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez is facing several legal hurdles to avoid a significant prison sentence in his attempted murder case, according to legal experts.
Velasquez’s best chance may be to reach a plea deal or, in the event of a trial, push for a hung jury that forces a new trial, multiple experts say.
Although many Velasquez supporters point to the victim Velasquez intended as the cause of the alleged crime, lawyers say the optics of the case — a father taking justice on his own after being denied justice — may not matter in a courtroom.
“It’s not a complicated case,” veteran defense attorney Steve Cooley told MMA Fighting. “Anyone who says it’s nuanced because their motive was to get revenge on the [alleged] molesting someone he loved, that somehow mitigated – not really.
“There’s no defense of, ‘I got mad because he really hurt someone I loved.'”
Earlier this month, Velasquez’s plea hearing on a charge of attempted premeditated murder and other gun crimes was again delayed. He is accused of engaging in a high-speed chase and then firing a .40 caliber handgun at the truck carrying Goularte, who had recently been accused of assaulting a close relative of Velasquez, Goularte’s 63-year-old stepfather. Paul Bender and Goularte’s mother. During the alleged incident, Bender was injured twice by gunfire.
Velasquez remains in jail after a judge last month denied him bail, calling his case “allegations of extreme recklessness toward human life.” The ex-champion posted several statements on social media while incarcerated, showing his support for sexual assault survivor organizations and thanking his fans.
Since the circumstances surrounding the alleged incident became public, Velasquez supporters have praised the ex-champion’s actions and criticized the justice system for allowing Goularte to be released on his own recognizance after his initial arrest for lewd or lascivious acts with a child. under 14 years old.
The biggest task for Velasquez’s attorneys is to take the premeditated murder charge off the table by presenting enough mitigating evidence to reach a plea deal.
“In other words, can you show that it was not premeditated, that it was done impulsively, without deliberation,” defense attorney Javier Rios said. “The first thing you’re trying to do is get it out of first degree murder, because first degree murder carries serious penalties.”
Velasquez faces life in prison if convicted of attempted premeditated murder, in addition to a 20-year enhancement for the use of a firearm in the alleged crime.
Medical records were cleared last month for the prosecution and defense, although details of the records were not released. Cooley believes the former heavyweight champion should be evaluated by a team of mental health professionals to rule out any immediate illness. Brain trauma from Velasquez’s previous career could also factor into his defense.
“He needs to be mentally evaluated by legitimate medical professionals…because something was wrong with him,” Cooley said.
A common defense in murder cases is to show that a defendant did not intend to kill a victim and was driven to act irrationally by the circumstances of a situation, possibly making him or her responsible for a lesser charge like manslaughter. Velasquez’s defense attorneys are likely to argue that Velasquez’s alleged actions came in response to Goularte’s alleged crime and that Velasquez was actually trying to defend his relative.
Among other things, the lawyers will have to explain why Velasquez would have acted when he did, several days after Goularte’s release from prison, and why the fighter would have armed himself.
“In this case, it’s tough, because he apparently showed some deliberation,” Rios said. “Getting the tools to try to kill someone, a prosecutor will typically use as circumstantial evidence that shows that person has a first degree mindset – deliberating what they were trying to do.”
“It doesn’t usually sound like someone reacting impulsively. He certainly has the characteristics of someone who knows what he wants to do, gets the tools for what he wants to do, and then sets out to do precisely what he set out to do.
Another complication is the fact that a party that does not appear to be linked to Goularte’s accusation – his father-in-law Bender – was seriously injured in the alleged incident.
“Even if a jury says, ‘We can understand anger and we can understand how it could cause a normally law-abiding person to react that way’, there really is no excuse for him shooting a car. and punches Mr. Bender,” attorney Alison Triessl said.
At the same time, Velasquez’s defense could attempt to channel public anger and use it as bargaining chips.
The ‘Free Cain Velasquez’ hashtag has become popular in the MMA industry, with fighters claiming the ex-champ did what he had to do to protect his family. Several even showed up in the courtroom. In interviews, they said they would have reacted the same if they were Velasquez.
Defense attorneys argue that no matter how bad Goularte’s alleged actions seem at the moment, he has not been convicted of a crime. (Goularte’s lawyer declared his client innocent and was forced into hiding following the charges and the Velasquez case.)
“If the public reaction is that the criminal justice system failed because someone is fighting his case and he got released, that doesn’t make sense to me,” Rios said. “When someone fights a case, they are presumed innocent. They weren’t convicted for anything. Zero, zip, nothing. So let’s assume this guy, the alleged victim, assumes he’s innocent of the child molestation. He defends his cause.
But for Velasquez, the negative publicity for the California justice system could work in Velasquez’s favor by discouraging prosecutors from going to court. In California, jury verdicts in a murder trial must be unanimous, and the composition of the jury could present a gamble for the state if it continues.
“I’m trying to convince a juror – because all you need is one – that what he did is understandable given that the criminal justice system let him down, and given this man, he believed he was going to continue to be a danger to children,” Triessl said.
A rare and controversial event is jury nullification, where a juror or jurors essentially decide that they disagree with a law and will not convict a defendant, although if found guilty, a judge can get them kicked out of court for not making a decision based on whether a law was broken.
“It depends on what they hear about the intended victim,” Cooley said. “Are they going to hear about the brutal details of the alleged assaults? What if he is found not guilty?
If a plea bargain fails and the case goes to trial, Cooley said prosecutors could try to keep evidence relating to Goularte’s trial out of sight. The supervising judge could also separate the questions and block jurors from hearing any information linking the charges against Velasquez to those of his alleged victim.
“In certain circumstances it could prevent bad things from being heard because there is no evidence that it happened, more prejudicial than probative, in the circumstances this is not a defense under the law “, said Cooley. “Therefore, it’s irrelevant. In all those circumstances, the judge can say, ‘I’m not going to hear that today.’ »
High-profile Velasquez attorney Mark Geragos has litigated dozens of celebrity cases with celebrities including Winona Ryder, Michael Jackson, Chris Brown and Colin Kaepernick, many with far more salacious allegations and under a microscope. much brighter media.
This time, Geragos and his associates must overcome Mr. Bender’s injuries, an alleged high-speed chase through the city streets, and the weapon used in the alleged crime, among other facts against Velasquez.
“It’s very difficult to see a full defense here,” Rios said. “Unless the alleged victim was armed with a weapon and attacked [Velasquez] first or threatened [Velasquez] first, what I haven’t seen, the case is looking more and more like one where you’re just trying to get the best deal possible.
The ex-champion arrived in court last month without any major charges on his record. He was considered a role model in the Latino community, a former champion, and was on the verge of restarting his professional wrestling career before the alleged incident. He signed “I love you” to his family members in the courtroom and made a heart shape with his hands.
Last fall, Velasquez spoke about his switch to psychedelics to heal decades of trauma and the loss of his mother and brother in 2019. He said the use of ayahuasca and 5-MeO- DMT had not only made him healthier, but had left him more grateful. of his development as a martial artist and a human being.
Velasquez’s character and journey will be on display in court, but the question is whether his impact will be seen before or after the verdict, when a potential sentence is handed down.
“If you can’t beat the charges, you’re just trying to get mitigation,” Rios said. “Perhaps the fact that the alleged victim, if they can in fact prove that he assaulted that loved one on the part of the accused, is arguably a mitigating one and perhaps that can be used to try to get [Velasquez] a better deal.
The real point of contention, according to multiple prosecutors, is how much Velasquez will pay for his actions when all is said and done. Legal experts doubt that Velasquez will come out of the case unscathed.
“It’s sad,” Cooley said. “He wasted his life. But you know what, it happens every day. … He wasted his life in a moment of spite, anger, uncontrolled emotion, thinking he could take justice into his own hands.