Portland judge lets loose with strong words - "We live in a gun culture" at manslaughter sentencing

By Aimee Green | The Oregonian | January 16, 2013

Source: The Oregonian

The brother of a man shot to death by a gun-toting party-goer in downtown Portland on New Year's morning 2011 told a judge Wednesday that an 11-year prison sentence for the killer sends the wrong message to society.

"This is not a deterrent," said Angel Mata, the brother of the late Ruben Mata. "...You're telling people you can get away with something like this."

Multnomah County Circuit Judge Eric Bergstrom offered strong words in sympathy, but approved the plea deal forged by the prosecution and defense.

"We live in a gun culture," the judge said. "And this is what happens weekly here when young people and guns and alcohol mix.

"I'll be presiding over a case of two teenagers, a gun and a death," said Bergstrom, describing the plea hearing today of 17-year-old Parrish Bennette, who is accused of fatally shooting 14-year-old Yashanee Vaughn in the head in his Northeast Portland bedroom.

"It breaks my heart all of the time, and it's just senseless," the judge continued. "Everybody suffers. ...It's the culture we have. I don't know the thing that brings about change. We certainly have daily reminders -- one example more horrific than the next.

"The criminal justice system can only do so much," Bergstrom added.

Kevin Charles Moffett had faced life in prison with possible release after 25 years for the murder of bouncer Ruben Mata outside Club 915. But Moffett last week pleaded no contest to first-degree manslaughter and agreed to the 11-year sentence.

Prosecutor Chuck Sparks told a packed courtroom that "it was important to put on the record" the reasons why the district attorney's office agreed to the deal.

Sparks said Moffett, 33, had a concealed weapons permit and a gun on him when he showed up with about 20 others to the troubled nightclub at Southwest Second Avenue and Taylor Street.

The club's owner waved Moffett through without a security check. After a few hours, someone in Moffett's group got in a physical fight with someone in another group and the club ousted the rival groups at the same time.

But not before the club's owner called some members of Moffett's group, most of whom were African American, a racist slur, the prosecutor said. One of them punched the owner in the mouth, and the owner ordered his bouncers to go outside and rough up the group, Sparks said.

Mata and another bouncer went outside, and although Moffett had been shepherding his friends away from the club, the group stopped when the other bouncer slammed one of Moffett's companions against a wall. Moffett's attorney, Stephen Houze, described it as an ambush.

According to the prosecution, Moffett spun around and shot twice, fatally striking Mata with one of the bullets.

"It doesn't excuse his behavior, but to some degree it explains it," Sparks said.

The prosecution said Mata didn't throw any punches and was simply accompanying the other bouncer outside.

The encounter, partially caught on surveillance video, lasted three seconds. Sparks said he didn't believe he could prove to a jury that Moffett had enough time to decide to intentionally kill Mata, as required by the definition of murder.

Within days, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission shut down the club, a move welcomed by police, who had urged the agency to take action after a year of documented problems there.

Mata, 32, left behind three young sons. Angel Mata described the night as a "tragedy of errors" that ended with his innocent brother in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Moffett apologized to the family, wearing a suit with a pocket handkerchief. He looked markedly different from the day he was arrested, when he had an unkempt beard and longer hair.

"I want the family to know I am not a monster, that I am not a gang member," Moffett said. "...Unfortunately, I made a bad decision and that has affected both of our families."