Thursday, Sept. 5, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
"I'm going to hell for this one and I know it," William Castillo predicted in his confession to brutally murdering an 86-year-old retired school teacher and setting her modest house ablaze to cover the crime.
The 23-year-old construction worker moved closer to that Wednesday when he was convicted of murder and several other felonies in the Dec. 17 death of Isabelle Berndt.
After hearing the taped confession and then listening to closing arguments in the murder trial, it took the jury only 20 minutes to render its guilty verdict.
The same jury is scheduled to return to District Judge Bill Maupin's courtroom Sept. 18 for a penalty hearing that could push Castillo closer to his predicted destiny. The jury will choose between sentencing Castillo to life in prison or death by lethal injection.
The verdict after a week-long trial was not a surprise since defense attorneys didn't challenge the mountain of evidence that was topped by Castillo's remorseful confession.
"This has never been about guilt," said Chief Deputy State Public Defender Peter LaPorta. "It's been about the penalty."
But for Castillo to have his fate decided by a jury, he had to endure a full trial. Had he pleaded guilty, his sentence would have been determined by a three-judge panel, which almost routinely hands down death sentences.
Defense attorney David Schieck said that Castillo would have pleaded guilty and saved the taxpayers the cost of a trial if a jury could have been empaneled to decide the sentence.
"The law should be changed," he said.
In his confession to police, Castillo said he broke into the home near Western High School using a key he discovered while working on a roofing job there.
He explained that he was broke and needed money for an unspecified lawyer's bill and to buy his little brother a skateboard and his sister an LL Cool J tape for Christmas.
Castillo said he heard snoring from the home's bedroom and tried to knock out the person with a tire iron to keep the victim from awakening and identifying him.
"I stepped around the corner and hit the object that I seen," he said. "I'm thinking it's a dude, okay. So I hit him a few more times and then a few more times. By then, it was too late."
During closing arguments, Deputy District Attorney Mel Harmon told the jury that splattered blood covered the wall behind the bed. He recalled that testimony showed Berndt was smothered with a pillow after the beating.
"It was not supposed to be a little 86-year-old lady," Castillo said to police. "If I could take it back, I would because I really didn't mean that lady no harm.
"I didn't want to hurt her. I didn't want to hurt nobody that night. I was just out to try to make a couple of bucks, man."
But District Attorney Stewart Bell argued that Castillo showed he intended to commit the murder by taking the tire iron into the home with him.
Harmon commented that it is "despicable, unconscionable, almost inconceivable that one person can sink so low."
Castillo stated that after murdering the woman and stealing $120 in cash and valuables, he went back to the home a short time later and burned it by dousing the curtains with lighter fluid.
"I was so disgusted with what I had done, I was kind of hoping that the fire would destroy everything and not leave no evidence of that gruesome fact," he said in the confession.
Castillo's friend, 26-year-old Michelle Platou, is charged with accompanying him during the deadly burglary and faces trial this month on murder and other counts.
Her trial was separated from Castillo's because prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty in her case.