Santeria killing gets N. Phila. man life

Posted: January 13, 2012

Christian Hernandez's legal problems began with an argument over religion.

They ended Friday in prayer, with his mother on her knees in court, imploring God and a Philadelphia judge to spare her son from life in prison.

"Dios mio, Dios mio!" cried Rosaria Fontanez, dropping to her knees at the bar of the court and raising her palms toward the ceiling. "Mi hijo, mi hijo!"

But, as Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart explained, there was nothing he could do for her son.

In Pennsylvania, a first-degree murder conviction mandates life in prison with no chance of parole. Hernandez had been found guilty of killing a man after an argument over Santeria, the religion that evolved from combining the beliefs of slaves brought from West Africa with elements of Catholicism.

Speaking through an interpreter, Hernandez, 20, told Minehart that he had asked his attorney, F. Michael Medway, to appeal the verdict in the May 29, 2009, shooting of Luis Freire, 55.

On Sept. 28, Minehart, sitting without a jury, found Hernandez guilty of first-degree murder and a weapons charge. Despite the mandatory life sentence, the judge delayed formal sentencing until after Hernandez had a mental-health evaluation.

Minehart said the exam showed Hernandez had a history of drug abuse and a personality disorder but understood the sentencing process.

Hernandez did not comment on the crime itself and none of the victim's relatives testified.

Trial witnesses said Hernandez and Freire had argued over the merits of the different versions of Santeria they practiced.

Five days later, witnesses, said, Hernandez followed Freire as he walked down Boudinot Street, near Allegheny Avenue and D Street in Kensington, and shot him twice in the back of the head with a shotgun.

"It was a clear case of first-degree murder," said Assistant District Attorney Brian Zarallo, referring to the second shot fired at Freire. "There was an argument over religion and he shot him."

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985,, or @joeslobo on Twitter.

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