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Bradlee Shopping Center stabbing suspect implicated by videos on his phone

The 17-year-old male suspect facing murder charges in last year’s fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Luis Mejia Hernandez was implicated by damning evidence police found on his phone, according to evidence presented Monday.

Monday’s bench trial will continue into today for the defense to present their case, and a speedy verdict on second degree murder and murder by mob charges is expected from Judge James C. Clark. The suspect faces between five-to-40 years in prison for the second degree murder charge and five-to-40 years for the murder by mob, or lynching, charge.

The stabbing occurred during a brawl between two rival gangs of Alexandria City High School teenagers on Tuesday, May 24, 2022 — a week before graduation. Mejia  Hernandez was fatally stabbed in the heart, and an autopsy showed that he also had abrasions to his neck, chin, the back of his hands, abdomen and knees, according to the medical examiner who testified that the cause of death was a 7/8-inch stab wound to the chest.

Commonwealth’s Attorney’s David Lord and Meredith Burke said that Mejia, a high school senior due to graduate within days, was outnumbered and fighting defensively at the Bradlee Shopping Center. They published into evidence multiple videos of the fight taken from a Alexandria Police Department dashcam, security cameras and videos from phones recovered by police. One security video shows Mejia Hernandez arriving to the parking lot in his car, parking, and then joining a group of students near a bus stop outside the Bradlee Shopping Center McDonald’s.

Lord and Burke allege that the suspect deliberately acted with cruel and deliberate malice.

“The defendant joined the fray and did not stop until he drove a knife into the chest of Luis Mejia Hernandez,” Burke said. “Videos show the defendant intentionally plunged his knife in the chest of Luis Mejia Hernandez.”

The suspect’s attorney’s, Sean Sherlock and Sebastian Norton, say that their client was a scared 16-year-old acting defensively, and that there is no evidence he stabbed Mejia Hernandez. Both defense attorneys would not comment on why they favored a bench trial.

Sherlock and Norton said that the Commonwealth’s case is built on circumstantial evidence, and without a murder weapon, confession or witnesses. Instead, they say, prosecutors only have “blurry cell phone videos of a scared 16-year-old in the middle of a violent brawl,” Norton said.

During Monday’s trial, the suspect sat quietly with a surgical face mask under his chin, and wore black pants, black sneakers and a long sleeve white button-up shirt. Several rows into the courtroom was Osmin Mejia Romero, the victim’s father, who sat emotionless while listening to a Spanish translation of the proceeding through headphones. Mejia Romero briefly appeared on the stand to identify photos of his son before resuming his seat in the gallery.

Brawl between rival student gangs

Two Alexandria Police officers responded initially to a trespassing call at the McDonald’s, and upon arriving a crowd of students left the restaurant and the scene escalated in the parking lot. Police testified that they were overwhelmed by the students and did not try breaking up the melee by activating the sirens, lights or PA system in their cruisers.

There were a number of other students with weapons, including Mejia Hernandez, who was was found to have had a stiletto pocket knife with a three-inch blade in his pocket throughout the altercation. Another student was found with brass knuckles.

The brawl occurred at around 12:30 p.m. and lasted about a minute.

“One of the subjects threw a water bottle, and another threw a mango pineapple smoothie,” testified Officer Byron Rush. “After that the subjects began to start fighting.”

Both Rush and Officer Malcolm Cook were the only officers to witness the incident, and said that they didn’t see the stabbing. The officers broke up groups of juveniles fighting, and helped Mejia Hernandez when he collapsed. He died soon after and was identified at Inova Alexandria Hospital by his driver’s license and student identification.

Friends of the victim say that police did not do enough to prevent the incident. Alexandria City High School shifted to virtual instruction for the remainder of the school year after the incident, and Mejia was posthumously awarded a graduation diploma.

Claiming self-defense

Both sides agree that the suspect allegedly found out about a planned fight between two factions of students in the Bradlee parking lot while he was in the Alexandria City High School cafeteria. The suspect also confirmed to investigators that he owned a knife, bought at a smoke shop, although initially told investigators that he didn’t use it.

During the interrogation, the suspect asked if he could text his girlfriend, and police agreed and observed the code he used to unlock his phone. Police then got into the phone and found multiple videos of the brawl that they’d not seen before. The video was taken from a phone, and prosecutors say shows the moment when the stabbing occurred.

“He acknowledged he was the person in the video with the knife in his hand,” testified Detective Michael Wheylan. “He admitted to doing it , but advised it was in self defense… He didn’t deny that he didn’t do it.”

Wheylan conducted the interrogation, and was convinced of the suspect’s guilt when the suspect allegedly admitted to owning a knife, and acting in self defense. Wheylan also said that the suspect told him that he lost the knife after the incident.

Norton and Sherlock were unsuccessful in convincing Clark to strike the murder in the second degree and murder by mob charges. They said there was no evidence their client initiated the fight, and that in the photo allegedly showing him stabbing Mejia Hernandez, they claim that Mejia Hernandez was positioned to attack him.

“I can’t exclude the notion that (the suspect) was part of the mob,” Clark said.

Norton said that the blow was struck in a “split second” in the heat of a brawl, and that his client believed MS-13 gang members were present and that he was scared. He also said there was no evidence that the suspect and victim knew each other, or that there was pre-planning before the incident.

Lord, however, said that Mejia Hernandez was “constantly on his heels,” and that the suspect was a member of a mob who “inserted himself into the situation with the knife and ultimately inflicted the lethal blow.”

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