Teen pleads not guilty in soccer referee’s death

Posted at 4:33 PM, Jun 14, 2013
and last updated 2013-06-15 00:34:45-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- A 17-year-old accused of punching a soccer referee in the head, ultimately killing him, pleaded not guilty to a charge of homicide by assault.

The teen's attorneys entered a formal "denial" of the third-degree felony charge at the end of a hearing Friday over public access to the proceedings. Salt Lake County prosecutors are seeking to have the young man tried as an adult.

In the hearing, the judge barred the news media from attending proceedings where the teen's family history, psychological evaluations and other personal information would be brought up. Hearings about the facts of the case would be open, Third District Juvenile Court Judge Kimberly Hornack said.

FOX 13 is not naming the teen unless he is certified as an adult.

The teen is accused of punching soccer referee Ricardo Portillo in the head during a game over a yellow card that he issued to the boy. That punch put Portillo in a coma, and he died days later.

Portillo's three daughters sat in the front row of the courtroom, looking at the young man who sat quietly as lawyers made their arguments before the judge.

"It was bad," Johana Portillo told FOX 13 outside of court. "It was a lot of mixed emotions. I couldn't believe I met the person who took my dad's life. But I don't know. I'll just leave everything in God's hands."

Outside of court, the teen's sister -- accompanied by his attorneys -- read a prepared statement to reporters.

"We want to tell the Portillo family how sorry we are and how horrible we feel about what has happened. (The teen) and our family … we cannot imagine how much you miss your father and we hope you can find peace," the woman, called herself Joana, said.

Judge Hornack denied a request by defense attorneys to have the teen released from juvenile detention to his family. She noted that he had no prior trouble and was considered an exemplary student in school, but said the seriousness of the charge and the fact that prosecutors wanted him charged as an adult was reason enough to keep him in custody.

"The notions or ideas that he's any risk of flight or risk to the community, I really do think it's beyond the pale," his attorney, Monte Sleight, said outside of court. "This is a kid with no history, no record... the allegation is he made one horrible decision."

Deputy Salt Lake County Attorney Patricia Cassell said the teen is facing a serious charge.

"He's charged with homicide by assault. It's a homicide case," she said. "It's very serious."

Judge Hornack scheduled an August hearing to determine if the teen should be certified as an adult, where he could face up to 5 years in prison if he is convicted. If the judge decides to retain custody of his case as a juvenile -- he could be kept in secure confinement until he is 21.

"This is a 17-year-old kid. This one decision in his whole entire life," said Sleight. "I hope we as a society aren't going to hold a 17-year-old kid accountable to the adult system because of one alleged decision."

As they left court, Portillo's daughters hugged each other and said they were hoping for justice and putting the case "in God's hands."

"There is no way for me to judge him," Johana Portillo said. "I forgive him for what he did to my dad. I do forgive him, because that's what my dad taught me to be -- a forgiving person."