One of the two men charged with murder in the double homicide of farm workers in Alexander on March 11 had a hard time deciding whether to accept a plea deal that would have capped his prison sentence at 23-to-life.
The alternative, if convicted at trial, would be a possible sentence of life without parole.
Raul Cruz had multiple conferences over the course of the day with his attorney Fred Rarick but it was a family member sitting in the gallery who persuaded Cruz to take the deal.
"What are you doing?" asked a woman who later identified herself as the defendant's sister-in-law.
A few minutes before that question, Rarick had returned from a private meeting with Cruz and informed District Attorney Kevin Finnell that Cruz had changed his mind and would reject the plea offer.
Then Cruz came in, and in response to the woman's question said he didn't know what to do.
"It's hard," he said. "I don't understand. They're offering a deal on a case that's still under investigation. If it's still under investigation, how can they charge me?"
He was referring to an allegation that while in jail, Cruz paid money to an inmate about to be released to give a "blunt" (a cigar hollowed out and filled with marijuana) laced with fentanyl to a witness.
The potential witness tampering case could, on its own, be worth 25 years in prison.
Finnell had already explained in court that the investigation was paused when he learned Cruz was going to accept a plea offer but that it would be completed and Cruz would be charged if he rejected the plea offer.
"I think you should take it," the woman told Cruz. "I'm just thinking of you."
Cruz was facing an indictment that includes first-degree murder and two counts of murder in the second-degree, arson, and petit larceny. Pending charges include witness tampering and two possible counts of introducing prison contraband. Cruz reportedly had a sharp object, or objects, in jail on one or more occasions.
The offer Cruz eventually accepted was a guilty plea to two counts of murder in the second degree, with a sentencing cap of 23 years to life on each count to run concurrently and a guilty plea intimidating a witness with any sentence on that conviction to run concurrently. The plea would satisfy all other pending charges.
If the 18-year-old stays out of trouble in prison, he could be a free man in 15 years.
Cruz first appeared in court today just before noon and Judge Melissa Cianfrini thought she would be presiding over a hearing where Cruz would accept the plea offer only to learn that Cruz had yet to indicate to his attorney that he would accept the offer.
Cianfrini called for a recess of more than three hours to give Rarick and Cruz time to meet at the jail and go over the plea offer again.
When they returned to court, Rarick informed Finnell that Cruz was rejecting the deal, and then a smirking Cruz entered the court
When Cianfrini re-entered the courtroom, the hearing resumed, and she asked Cruz if he had made a decision.
Cruz said nothing for several seconds.
"I'm not going to accept it," he told Cianfrini.
After more conversation about sentencing parameters, there was a pause in the hearing, which is when Cruz and the woman had their conversation, with Cianfrini out of the room.
Cruz turned around, facing the front of the courtroom and whispered something to Rarick. Rarick turned to Finnell and said, "He's going to take it."
Cruz turned to the woman and said, "I let him know I'm going to take it."
"Don't change your mind," she said.
"I think she's giving you wise advice," Rarick told Cruz.
When the hearing resumed, Cianfrini began the detailed recitation of the plea offer and what rights Cruz surrendered as part of the plea offer, including his right to a trial.
When it came to a discussion about Cruz giving up his right to certain appeals, such as challenging evidence that could be used to convict him, Cruz said he didn't understand, so Cianfrini allowed Cruz and Rarick to again discuss the case while she left the room.
From what could be heard of the conversation in the courtroom, it wasn't clear that Cruz -- who had told Cianfrini previously that he only had a ninth-grade education and had not completed his GED -- would not change his mind again but when Cianfrini resumed the hearing, he said he would agree to appeal waiver.
In the end, Cruz admitted intentionally participating in the murders of Elibander "Ivan" Morales and Marcelino Gomez Hernandez at 10216 Alexander Road, Alexander, on March 11.
Prince Wilson, of Albion, is also charged in the double homicide.
Cruz will be sentenced at 1:30 p.m., Dec. 13.
CORRECTION: The length of the sentence was corrected to 23 years.