Verdict tossed, Gina Celaya is starting new life

'92 trial called unjust; woman now is free, and an aspiring artist
2013-05-16T00:00:00Z 2013-05-16T11:07:42Z Verdict tossed, Gina Celaya is starting new lifeVeronica M. Cruz Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 16, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Over her 20 years in prison, Gina Celaya showed herself to be a talented artist, creating drawings with pen on paper and expressing a desire to learn to airbrush designs on cars.

Celaya may get a chance to put those skills and desires to good use now, after being set free Wednesday. After growing up behind bars, Celaya's door to freedom opened when a federal judge recently threw out her original murder conviction and ordered a new trial.

Rather than go through that, prosecutors followed a plea agreement that reduced the charges against her, and reduced her sentence to the time she has already served.

Celaya, who in 1994 was the youngest person to be tried as an adult for murder in Pima County, was 14 years old in 1992 when she shot Trinidad Lopez. She contended at the trial that the 50-year-old drove her out into the desert and tried to sexually assault her.

After a federal judge last week ruled Celaya, now 34, be granted a new trial, prosecutors agreed to allow her to plead to the lesser charge of second-degree murder. The victim's family agreed with the plea agreement.

Celaya sat between her attorneys, Walter Nash and William Kirchner, in Judge Richard Nichols' courtroom, listening attentively as he read the terms of her plea agreement.

Dressed in a prison-issued orange T-shirt and pants, wrists bound in shackles around her waist, she offered brief, polite answers to Nichols' questions about the plea.

When it was over, Nash wrapped his arms around her.

"We didn't feel she got justice when she got as much time as she did," Nash said, referencing Celaya's initial 35-year prison sentence. "We thought she didn't get a fair shake before, and we wanted to try to right that if we could."

The new trial was ordered because testimony from several witnesses who would have supported her self-defense claim was barred from her original trial, Nash said.

Some of those witnesses were prostitutes, some were women he just picked up and one was a girl around Celaya's age, Nash said.

Nash and Kirchner were hired by the Tohono O'odham Nation in 2002 to represent Celaya for $50,000. She is a member of the tribe.

Although the money was spent years ago, Nash said the pair vowed to see the case through.

"We're with you to the finish," Nash recalled telling Celaya when the money was about to run out.

"The biggest single component was who and what Gina was," Nash said of the attorney's commitment. "One would expect if you run into a person who's been jailed for many years starting at age 14 that they would be a bitter person, and that's not what we found with Gina. She was frankly amazing. She was sensitive, she was courteous, she was intuitive about issues in her case, and that touched us."

Deputy Pima County Attorney Rick Unklesbay said the plea was offered to Celaya to avoid a new trial. Lopez's family declined to comment for the story, but Unklesbay said they were against having a new trial.

Plus, Celaya would have been eligible for parole in about four years, because her sentence was reduced to a minimum of 25 years in 2003, Unklesbay said.

After two decades in prison and several appeals, Celaya wanted some "finality" in her case, Nash said.

When retired juvenile legal defender Ragi Case, who fought to keep Celaya's case from being transferred to adult court, heard about Celaya's release Wednesday, she burst into tears.

"The whole thing was the worst miscarriage of justice I have ever seen in my whole life," Case said, asserting Celaya acted in self-defense.

"It's not justice because she's not guilty of homicide," Case said. "It's justice because she's out. She should never have gone to jail."

Barbara Sattler, a retired defense attorney who represented Celaya in 1994, echoed Case's sentiments.

"It's a wonderful development that should have happened 20 years ago," she said. "I mean, I tried a lot of cases when I was a public defender and when I was in private practice, and that was one of the most unfair trials that I've ever been involved with."

Hard life

By all accounts, Celaya led a hardscrabble life.

She grew up in South Tucson in a dilapidated trailer, with missing windows and faulty locks, on South 10th Avenue.

Her mom was a drug addict who, at age 9, Celaya had to help revive from a heroin overdose.

Her father wasn't around much, and was also a known alcohol and drug abuser. By age, 7 Celaya was sniffing paint, which progressed to marijuana and cocaine use.

Celaya often took on the burden of caring for her younger brother.

She stopped attending classes at Wakefield Middle School when she was 13, and by that age she had already suffered a miscarriage.

In the early morning hours of Dec. 22, 1992, Lopez offered Celaya a ride, and she got into his pickup near South Sixth Avenue and Ajo Way.

She testified that Lopez drove her to the desert and groped her, so she pulled the gun she stole from her 22-year-old boyfriend from her back pocket and fired at him, striking him in the buttocks.

Celaya took $19 from Lopez's wallet and drove off in his truck leaving him in the desert, where he bled to death.

Lopez's body was found on Christmas Eve by a homeless man looking for firewood in the desert.

Good impression

Those who have represented Celaya speak highly of her.

"Gina is a very, very different person that who I thought she was, from what I had heard and read when the case was first going on," Kirchner said. Instead of the hard-bitten, calculating person he expected, he found she's "a very nice, considerate person, thoughtful of others" - one who sent him a hand-drawn card when his mother died and likes to read Jane Austen.

Case said she kept in touch with Celaya through letters up until about eight years ago, when she retired from the Public Defender's Office.

"She's very spiritual, fun loving, kind, reaches out to people," Case said.

Kirchner and Nash said Celaya intends to take careful steps to reintegrate into society.

She's expressed an interest in participating in transitional programs and has tried to find a job.

"She's not rushing into going out and having a great time - rather, I think she's going to try to transition and be in a place where she can sort of learn to do all of the things she didn't learn starting when she was 14," Kirchner said.

On StarNet: View more photos of Gina Celaya at azstarnet.com/gallery

Contact reporter Veronica Cruz at vcruz@azstarnet.com or at 573-4224.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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