A 22-year-old man pleaded guilty Friday to second-degree murder in the baseball-bat beating of a USC graduate student from China who was attacked near the campus three years ago while walking back to his apartment following a study session.
Jonathan Del Carmen -- one of four young people who was charged in the July 24, 2014, attack on Xinran Ji -- is facing 15 years to life in state prison. He is set to be sentenced Nov. 3 by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli.
Deputy District Attorney John McKinney told the judge that the prosecution will drop a special circumstance allegation of murder during the commission of an attempted robbery as a result of Del Carmen's plea, which came two days after co-defendant Andrew Garcia, 21, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the 24-year-old electrical engineering student's killing.
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Garcia was convicted June 8 of first-degree murder and one count each of robbery, attempted robbery and assault with a deadly weapon for attacking a man and woman at Dockweiler State Beach about two hours after targeting Ji.
Garcia's co-defendant, Alejandra Guerrero, 19, was convicted last October of first-degree murder for her role in the killing, with jurors finding true the special circumstance allegation of murder during the commission of an attempted robbery, along with an allegation that she personally wielded a wrench during the attack on Ji.
Guerrero, who was also convicted of the Dockweiler Beach attack, is awaiting sentencing and is facing up to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Another young man, Alberto Ochoa, 20, is still awaiting trial in Ji's killing, along with the Dockweiler Beach attack.
The prosecutor told jurors in Guerrero's trial that Del Carmen remained inside the vehicle after pulling over when Ji was walking in the area as Garcia, Guerrero and Ochoa got out of the car to confront the victim, then drove around the corner as Garcia and Guerrero chased after Ji and continued the attack. Del Carmen went back to the car during the subsequent robbery at Dockweiler Beach, McKinney said.
Ji was able to stagger away and make his way back to his fourth-floor apartment, McKinney told jurors.
"He's dying. The fatal blows have already been inflicted. He doesn't know he's dying ....," the prosecutor said of surveillance footage showing the victim returning to the apartment building where he was found lifeless by one of his roommates later that morning.
"We lost the sunshine from our life," said Songbo Ji, the victim's father, speaking through a Mandarin translator at Garcia's sentencing Wednesday. "He was our only child. People our age are now planning weddings for sons and daughters. But every day for us, we are paying tribute to our son. We are completely heartbroken."
The victim's mother was too distraught to speak, but aunt Zhaohui Du told the court that the mother slept each night with the victim's blanket, "so she could continue to provide warmth to her son."
"His life was taken by this demon," Du said.
Prosecutors opted not to seek the death penalty against Garcia or Del Carmen. Guerrero and Ochoa could not face the death penalty because they were both under 18 at the time Ji was slain.
Carol Walker, a chaplain who said she has known Garcia for eight months, spoke briefly at Wednesday's sentencing hearing, telling the judge that Garcia was emotionally disturbed and had been raised without a permanent home, moving "from parks to shelters to motels."
"He has a precious life also," she said. "I ask this court for your mercy."
Eddie North-Hager, USC's director of media relations, told the court that a Xinran Ji Memorial Scholarship had been established at the university.
It will be awarded annually to a promising electrical engineering graduate student from China, Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan.
Ji "was destined to go so far. He was a top designer, a gifted engineer," North-Hager said at Garcia's sentencing.
Ji's killing occurred two years after two other USC graduate students from China were shot to death during an April 2012 robbery as they sat in a car that was double-parked on a street near the USC campus.
Two men -- Javier Bolden and Bryan Barnes -- were convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the killings of Ying Wu and Ming Qu, who were both 23.