David Bueso, 19

In hindsight, David Gerardo Bueso wishes he had testified in his own defense after the 2017 bludgeoning death of his best friend and former roommate, Jhoel Brisuela-Tercero, at a Baton Rouge apartment complex. After not doing so on the advice of his lawyer, he spent four years in Louisiana's prison system until the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed nonunanimous verdicts.

"It had been David's intent all along to testify at trial, but he was an impressionable kid who ultimately took his trial lawyer's advice not to testify when the trial lawyer did not think the state had presented sufficient evidence of guilt to warrant putting on a defense," Bueso's appellate attorney, Kyla Blanchard-Romanach, said in a recent interview.

An East Baton Rouge Parish jury, however, decided the state had met its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt and voted 11-1 in February 2019 to convict Bueso of second-degree murder in the Aug. 5, 2017, killing. He was sentenced three months later to a mandatory term of life in prison and sent to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

In April 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed nonunanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases, prompting a reversal of Bueso's conviction and sentence.

He was granted a new trial, which was scheduled to occur later this month, but in June, the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney's Office dismissed the murder charge after another parish grand jury, with access to new information, declined to re-indict Bueso on the murder charge.

The new evidence included statements from Bueso, who claims he and Brisuela-Tercero were the victims of an armed robbery that took his friend's life; the manager of the Gardere-area apartment complex where Brisuela-Tercero was killed; and a woman who picked up Bueso after the homicide.

In addition to Bueso's statement that he and Brisuela-Tercero were the victims of an armed robbery inside the apartment at the Broussard Plaza apartment complex on Coy Avenue, the new grand jury received a statement from the complex's manager who said he was aware that robberies were taking place in the complex around August 2017, when Brisuela-Tercero was killed.

Bueso had told the judge at his sentencing that, "I'm a victim, too."

The new grand jury pretermitted the second-degree murder count on June 30, meaning it neither indicted nor cleared Bueso, now 23.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said the case could be brought back to the grand jury if additional evidence comes to light.

"The case will always remain open. I don't anticipate anything new coming forward," Moore said, citing language barrier issues in the 4-year-old case.

Blanchard-Romanach contends Bueso, who was indicted on a second-degree murder count in December 2017, was wrongfully convicted, but Moore disputes that characterization.

"Absolutely not," Moore insists. "The jury verdict in this case was a proper verdict based on the evidence that both sides presented."

Moore said Bueso was picked up on burglary warrants after the homicide and questioned about the slaying. He was not truthful and said his girlfriend picked him up and he knew nothing about the victim's death, the district attorney said. That statement to detectives was recorded and played for the jury.

But the appellate attorney said the case was tilted against Bueso.

"Because they told him from the moment they made contact with him that he was going to prison for life and they lied and said they saw blood all over his boots, David got scared and denied being at the apartment when Jhoel was killed," Blanchard-Romanach said.

She said Bueso was 19 at the time and alone in this country. His mother was in a hospital in Mexico at the time.

"A couple of days later, he asked to speak with the detectives again with a lawyer, but they basically told him they didn't have a lawyer available for him at that time and he could just go back to the jail without giving a statement," Blanchard-Romanach said.

Moore said the trial jury that found Bueso guilty cannot be faulted now that new information was presented to a second grand jury.

The district attorney, while stressing that Bueso is presumed innocent due to the grand jury's latest action, acknowledged there are law enforcement officials involved in the case who still believe he is responsible for the homicide.

Blanchard-Romanach, who gives Moore credit for agreeing to present the new evidence to the grand jury, said Bueso has no plans to sue the state for losing four years of his life.

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"His focus at this time is on his immigration status and efforts to rebuild his life after the trauma of seeing his good friend murdered and then being wrongfully convicted and sent to Angola for that murder," she said.

Brisuela-Tercero, 22, died of blunt-force trauma to the head. He suffered skull fractures and bruises of the brain.            

Prosecutor Morgan Johnson argued at Bueso’s trial that he killed Brisuela-Tercero during a “cowardly ambush” while the victim slept on Aug. 5, 2017. She suggested Bueso killed Brisuela-Tercero in a dispute over money. Bueso was unemployed while he roomed with Brisuela-Tercero and was supposed to pay half the rent, the prosecutor said.

Johnson also suggested to the jury that a 24-inch machete found in a bathroom next to a spray bottle of bleach was the murder weapon, but Bueso’s DNA was not discovered on the machete. Bueso’s DNA and Brisuela-Tercero's blood, however, were found on the bottle, she said.

Moore said in a recent interview that there was insufficient DNA found on the blade of the machete to produce a valid DNA profile. The handle of the machete included a mixture of profiles from a minimum of three contributors, he added, but due to the complex nature of the profile, no conclusions could be made by the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab.

Bueso told detectives where they could find the pants he was wearing the night Brisuela-Tercero was killed, and the victim's blood was discovered on those jeans.

Blanchard-Romanach said Brisuela-Tercero's blood apparently got on Bueso's pants when Bueso went into Brisuela-Tercero's bedroom at gunpoint to get money demanded by the robbers — money that was in Brisuela-Tercero's closet.

"David was not even aware that the blood had gotten on his pants, as his attention was obviously on trying to stay alive and begging the robbers to stop striking Jhoel," she said. "While there were drops of blood on David's pants, it was not at all the quantity of blood that would have gotten on the pants of the perpetrator nor was it in the location that would have gotten on the perpetrator."    

Blanchard-Romanach previously stated in a new trial motion filed in April 2019, a month before Bueso was sentenced, that the blood was found on the back of his pants. Blood spatter was discovered on the walls, ceiling and floor of Brisuela-Tercero's bedroom.

"One would expect that whomever attacked Mr. Brisuela-Tercero would have been covered in blood. It defies logic and common sense to suggest that a person who attacked and killed Brisuela-Tercero would have left that scene with only a few specks of blood on his pants," she wrote in that motion, which was denied.

Blanchard-Romanach also said the statement from the Broussard Plaza apartment complex manager weighs in favor of Bueso's armed robbery claim.

The manager wrote in an October 2020 affidavit that there was a particular problem with robberies of the apartments on the edge of the complex near a partially broken wooden fence. Brisuela-Tercero's apartment was one of the apartments in that line of apartments with doors that faced the fence rather than the interior of the complex, he said.

"This made these apartments more susceptible to robbery than the other apartments in the complex," he wrote.

The manager said he specifically recalled the occupants of two of those exterior-facing apartments being robbed.

"In fact, there was a previous occupant of (Brisuela-Tercero's apartment) who, as a result of robberies in this very apartment, first obtained a concealed carry permit and then moved out of the apartment," he wrote.

Moore said the manager's statement was circumstantial in nature but "something you have to consider."

Blanchard-Romanach had stated in her new trial motion that law enforcement testified at Bueso's trial that robberies in that apartment complex were rampant and that most of the robberies were never reported to law enforcement, "most likely because many of the tenants of the (complex) are undocumented immigrants." Moore said Bueso and Brisuela-Tercero lacked legal status to be in this country.

The new grand jury also was provided information from a woman who picked Bueso up from the scene, and he told her that he and the victim had been robbed. 

Moore said Bueso did not identify the alleged robbers.

The district attorney said he doesn't feel the Bueso case is an indictment of the criminal justice system.

"Things worked out the way you would want them to work out," he said. "It could have potentially worked better if the information had come in sooner."

Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.