He faced life in prison for 2020 Ceres homicide. Then his lawyer argued self-defense

A man who was facing a life sentence for a 2020 homicide instead was sentenced Monday to more than 12 years in prison as part of a plea agreement after his attorney said he established a “viable self-defense” claim.

The shooting happened in March 8, 2020, in the 3600 block of Spruce Avenue, an unincorporated pocket in Ceres west of Highway 99.

Luis Soto, 28 of Ceres, was killed, several others were injured and two men were arrested.

The Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated the case, said at the time that it was a drive-by shooting but didn’t say that multiple people were shooting and from two different groups.

It was basically a shootout,” said attorney Greg Spiering, who represented defendant Michael Anthony Valdepena Jr., who also was shot. “We were able to use the forensics on the scene ... to establish viable self-defense in the case and show that the initial shots were fired by the other group; not necessarily by the decedent but by one of his confederates.”

Valdepena Jr. and Sergio Zuniga were charged with first-degree murder, two counts of attempted murder and weapons and a gang enhancement.

The murder charges also included special circumstances for allegedly discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle, which made both Zuniga and Valdepena eligible for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted.

Zuniga’s arrest was based on his car being used in the drive-by, but the physical evidence, like blood in the car, pointed to Valdepena, according to Spiering. Charges related to the homicide eventually were dropped against Zuniga, though he was convicted of a drug offense that was the result of a subsequent search of his home after the shooting.

The gang enhancement was dropped early on in the case, Spiering said, because there was no evidence it was gang related. Rather, there had been an altercation earlier in the day at the home on Spruce and there was a party there when the shooting started, which may have been connected.

Using forensic evidence and video surveillance, Spiering said he put together a video presentation of how the shooting occurred and his theory that the group at the house on Spruce fired first.

He said the people from the party fired at least 16 rounds, and Valdepena was shot at least four times.

After Spiering shared his video presentation with the prosecution, the two sides reached an agreement.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Wendell Emerson said, “One of the reasons we agreed to the disposition is that we had a lack of cooperation with the witnesses and we had issues with witnesses not being truthful regarding the incident.”

Valdepena pleaded to voluntary manslaughter and shooting at an occupied dwelling. The murder and attempted murder charges, enhancements and special circumstance were dismissed. He was sentenced to 12 years and eight months in prison.