BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — It’s been more than two years since Cesar Joseph Malta suffered a fatal gunshot wound to his back while seated in a vehicle in East Bakersfield.
On Monday, testimony began in what’s expected to be a three-day transfer hearing for Malta’s accused killer, Sonny Veleta, who was 16 at the time and whom prosecutors are seeking to move from juvenile to adult court.
Veleta, now 18, is accused of shooting the 19-year-old Malta the night of Aug. 12, 2021. Malta was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead.
Among the evidence presented was a frantic 911 call made by a passenger in Malta’s vehicle.
“My friend is shot,” the passenger tells a dispatcher. “Wake up, wake up!” he then shouts at Malta.
Throughout the hearing, Veleta, wearing glasses and an orange sweater, hair braided in cornrows, sat slightly hunched forward next to his attorney, Chief Deputy Public Defender Teryl Wakeman.
At a transfer hearing, also called a fitness hearing, a judge considers factors including criminal sophistication, prior criminal history and seriousness of the offense in deciding whether to send the case to adult court.
If convicted as a juvenile, Veleta would be released by his 25th birthday, at the latest. A murder conviction in adult court can result in lifetime imprisonment.
According to testimony given by Bakersfield police Sgt. Robert Woods, the passenger in Malta’s vehicle said they drove to East Bakersfield to deliver a baggie of marijuana to someone he knew only as “Sonny.”
When they arrived at the meeting location at Lake and Kern streets they saw a Hispanic male, about 5-foot-10, wearing a hoodie, the passenger said according to Woods. The passenger said they stopped by the man and Malta rolled down his window and held out the baggie of marijuana.
The person in the hoodie drew a gun, and, as Malta started to drive away, fired a single shot into the vehicle, Woods said the passenger told him. The passenger said he helped steer as Malta, wounded, began losing consciousness. They stopped at the intersection of Baker and Oregon streets, where the passenger called 911.
Through an examination of Malta’s phone, Woods said, he linked Veleta to a Snapchat account Malta had been communicating with just before the shooting. The passenger identified Veleta in a photo lineup as the gunman, he said.
Prosecutor Cole Sherman will continue to call witnesses on Tuesday.