DA drops death penalty in baby-killing case

Daniel Contreras

Daily Post Staff Writer

San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe on Monday reserved his decision on seeking the death penalty for Daniel Contreras, who is charged with molesting and killing his girlfriend’s 17-month-old daughter.

Wagstaffe’s office is now seeking life in prison without the possibility of parole for Contreras, 32, of Redwood City, in the Aug. 6, 2015, death of Evelyn S. Castillo.

When Evelyn would not stop crying, Contreras began to beat the toddler, resulting in multiple skull fractures, according to the DA.

Contreras claimed Evelyn had died after falling from a table. But the autopsy disputed Contreras’ story, according to the DA’s office.

Wagstaffe originally decided to seek the death penalty in 2018. His decision came after he and his death penalty team received hundreds of pages of information about Contreras from his attorneys, Peter Arian and Scott Sherman.

The two attorneys were appointed to represent Contreras in early 2019 after his original attorneys James Thompson and Richard Keyes withdrew from the case.

Wagstaffe said the information provided by Arian and Sherman shed some light on Contreras’ upbringing and mental health issues he suffers from.

The DA said that the proof of Contreras molesting the child is “less than we originally thought.”

Wagstaffe declined to go into what has potentially changed regarding the sexual assault aspect of the case, saying it will play out during Contreras’ trial in March.

Wagstaffe said with the new information he was presented with, he concluded that “in today’s environment, this is not a case where a jury will return a death penalty verdict.”

The DA said that life without parole is adequate in this case.

In California, to be eligible for the death penalty, the defendant must have committed a first-degree murder that includes a “special circumstance” such as rape, other murders or arson or for gang purposes.

Contreras was eligible for the death penalty because there is a special circumstance — the molestation of Evelyn.

Contreras was the first person the DA’s office sought the death penalty in 12 years.

In that case, Wagstaffe convinced a jury to vote for the execution of Alberto Alvarez, who shot and killed East Palo Alto Officer Richard May.

However, there have been no executions in the state since 2006 because a judge ruled that the state’s lethal injection process violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In March 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in California.

There are 744 inmates currently awaiting execution on death row, 11 of which received the sentence for crimes committed in San Mateo County.

San Mateo County had 12 on death row until Philip Jablonski, 73, died of natural causes in December 2019. Jablonski had killed five women, including two Burlingame women, in 1991.