A state appeals court panel upheld the conviction Thursday of a former Highland Park resident who murdered two friends and left their bodies in a car he abandoned on a Pasadena street, then carjacked a woman who tried to fight him off because her puppy was in her car.
A three-justice panel from California's 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected Manuel Penaloza's claim that there was insufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation.
Penaloza was convicted in September 2011 of first-degree murder for the execution-style slayings of Francisco Regalado and Joe Malta. Jurors found true the special circumstance allegation of multiple murders.
Jurors also convicted Penaloza of carjacking a woman after crashing the vehicle he was driving, along with grand theft of Regalado's 1992 Honda Accord.
The jury acquitted Penaloza of the attempted murder of the carjacking victim, along with a charge that he had kidnapped Regalado.
“Appellant, who had a prior relationship with the decedents, was bothered by remarks they made. Both decedents were unarmed, and neither had threatened appellant or had presented legally sufficient provocation. Appellant, using a firearm in his bedroom, shot both at close range, execution-style, each one above the eye,” Associate Justice Patti S. Kitching wrote on behalf of the panel.
Police found the bodies of Regalado and Malta in Regalado's car, which was abandoned on San Rafael Boulevard after the Honda Accord crashed.
In a letter read on her behalf in court at Penaloza's sentencing last November, the carjacking victim wrote that her life was “changed forever” after she tried to do the right thing by trying to help Penaloza after he crashed the vehicle he was driving.
“He brutally attacked me, left me for dead and kidnapped my dog,” Heidi Muenzenmaye wrote. “Manuel Penaloza, you will never hurt anyone again.”
During the trial, Muenzenmayer testified that the man she described as having “eyes that were so evil I couldn't imagine” was going toward her 40th anniversary Ford Mustang, which contained her 12-week-old Australian Shepherd puppy. She said she struggled with Penaloza for control of the car and made the choice to stay in the vehicle “because he wasn't getting away with my puppy.”
Penaloza took off in the Mustang, reaching speeds of 55 to 65 mph and elbowing her in the chest in an effort to dislodge her as she was halfway out of the vehicle, she testified.
“He kept saying ‘Get out, get out.’ He kept swerving back and forth. He kept hitting things to try to throw me out of the car,'' she told jurors, noting that the car struck a brick wall about 300 to 400 feet away from where the vehicle was taken and that she couldn't hang on any longer.
“The last thing I screamed at him was, `Please don't kill my dog,’” she said, noting that she was later notified that her pet had been found safe.
She said she suffered injuries to her face, left arm and right foot—the latter of which involved her losing a portion of her heel.
Penaloza's trial attorney, Manuel Lopez, said at his client's sentencing that Penaloza was “carrying a lot of mental baggage'' and that his girlfriend and unborn baby had been killed in front of him by gang members. He said Penaloza was “very remorseful.”
Penaloza—who is serving two consecutive life prison terms without the possibility of parole, plus 62 years and eight months to life—was extradited from Mexico after authorities got a tip that he was hiding in a small town in Guerrero, where he was arrested in August 2009.
Penaloza had been profiled on the television show “America's Most Wanted.”