A 33-year-old San Simeon man was sentenced Wednesday to 11 years in state prison for his role in a highly publicized cross burning next to the home of a black teenager in Arroyo Grande last year.
Judge Jacquelyn Duffy sentenced Jeremiah Leo “Smurf” Hernandez in San Luis Obispo Superior Court for his conviction on four criminal counts related to the incident, including hate crime enhancements.
Hernandez had faced up to 14 years in state prison after a jury returned a guilty verdict on all counts June 4.
Three others accused of the same crimes previously entered no-contest pleas. Jason Kahn was sentenced to 12 years in state prison, a term based partially on other criminal activity, such as a conviction for an unlawful taking of a vehicle. Sara Matheny and William Soto each were sentenced to five years in prison.
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Hernandez’s attorney, Raymond Allen, said he disagreed with the verdict for his client and maintained that the four didn’t know a black teen lived at the home next to where the incident took place on March 18, 2011.
He cited wiretap evidence from a preliminary hearing that showed Kahn told an informant in an unguarded moment, “I did not know a (racial slur) lived there.”
“It’s clear this was not a hate crime,” Allen said. “This was the exact location where Rick Kahn was killed. He was the father of Jason Kahn. We also know the cross wasn’t facing toward the girl’s house.”
But Deputy District Attorney Dave Pomeroy previously argued that the crime was obviously a hate crime, pointing to the size of the 11-foot cross that burned across from the bedroom window of the black teen next door.
Pomeroy also emphasized that the suspects immediately ran from the scene, debunking the theory the burning was a memorial for Kahn’s father — who was shot at the same property by police 17 years ago when he charged at officers with a hunting knife. Police had wanted to question Kahn’s father about a murder.
Jurors found credible evidence that showed the suspects talked about carrying out the cross burning. Gas station video footage also showed Hernandez with two other suspects on the day of the incident, and a calendar journal entry written by Hernandez’s girlfriend implicated him, as well.
Jurors said they were convinced the group went to honor the death of Kahn’s father and to intimidate the 19-year-old. One juror said the hate crime element of the incident was like “the icing on the cake” for the group because they memorialized Rick Kahn and also intimidated the teen.
Pomeroy wasn’t present for the hearing Wednesday; another prosecutor handled the sentencing in his place.
Hernandez elected not to make a statement in court other than to request eligibility to serve half of the prison sentence, which can be arranged under certain legal guidelines.
But Duffy said she disagreed that the half-time guideline applied in this case. She said that decision is for the state prison system to make.