A man who shot his roommate in the back of the head in the kitchen of their Desert Hot Springs apartment was sentenced to 54 years to life in state prison Friday.
Brian Keith Hernandez, 50, was convicted in April of second-degree murder and assault with a gun for the Feb. 28, 2017 shooting of 49-year-old Steven Nelson at the Estancia Apartments at 13355 Verbena Drive. Nelson died the following day at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs.
Nelson had moved in a few months prior to the shooting, but Hernandez, who claimed self-defense in the killing, demanded soon after that Nelson leave, along with Nelson’s girlfriend, who stayed at the apartment on occasion, according to trial testimony.
Hernandez testified that the girlfriend’s drug use prompted him to insist they move out, which he claimed led Nelson to attack and threaten to kill him. The defendant testified that Nelson threatened to stab him and was shot only after reaching for a blade from a knife block in the apartment’s kitchen.
Shortly after 911 was called, a Desert Hot Springs police officer saw Hernandez pacing back and forth outside the apartment complex. Jurors heard a recording from the officer’s body camera recording device, which captured Hernandez telling the officer “Just check me and cuff me, I shot the guy upstairs.”
Deputy District Attorney Anthony Orlando said that after Nelson asked for a few extra days to move out, Hernandez said, “You are gonna get out tomorrow, I don’t give a (expletive). No, if you don’t get out, it’s gonna go down. It’s gonna go down tomorrow night if you don’t get out of here.”
When Nelson didn’t appear prepared to move out on Feb. 28, and instead moved a large mirror into the apartment that night, Hernandez “snapped,” the prosecutor said.
Orlando alleged that just before 10 p.m. Hernandez asked Nelson, “So you want to play games?” Nelson allegedly responded by saying, “Nah man. I’m not playing any games. What are you talking about? There’s no games being played.”
Nelson’s girlfriend, who was in a nearby bedroom, heard that exchange and a gunshot, then ran out to find Nelson bleeding on the kitchen floor, according to the prosecution.
Hernandez then pointed the gun at her and asked her “You want to be next?,” according to Orlando. She ran from the apartment and pounded on neighbors’ doors throughout the complex, eventually prompting one of the residents to call police.
Hernandez “ended the life of Steven Nelson for nothing more than being a difficult roommate,” the prosecutor told jurors in his closing argument.
Defense attorney Bosky Kathuria said Nelson previously threatened to “put (Hernandez) in the hospital,” then punched and “bear-hugged” Hernandez on Feb. 28 before threatening to stab him. Kathuria emphasized that Nelson outweighed his client by about 100 pounds and that Hernandez was a disabled military veteran suffering from gout that forced him to use a cane to get around.
Hernandez testified that he shot Nelson out of “self-preservation. I was scared. I think he would have killed me. I really think he would have stabbed me to death.”
Hernandez said that though he felt justified in shooting Nelson, he regretted having to do it.
“I just wish the outcome was different,” he testified. “I just wish he would have left.”
Orlando argued that Hernandez’s self-defense claims were unwarranted as Nelson had his back turned to the defendant and was about 15 feet away from Hernandez when he was shot. Kathuria argued that Nelson “could have closed that distance in seconds,” making the threat to Hernandez’s life more imminent than the prosecution was letting on.
“Steven Nelson threatened to put him in the hospital and on Feb. 28, he acted on that threat,” Kathuria said. “Brian acted reasonably given the circumstances, and that’s the bottom line.”