National Guard members charged with murder claim self-defense

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Two National Guard members charged with murdering a fellow soldier are getting their first chance to contest the evidence against them. (KFSN)

Two National Guard members charged with murdering a fellow soldier are getting their first chance to contest the evidence against them.

Jessica Wills and Jacqueline Benavides-Wills dressed in civilian clothes Monday as they face murder charges in Fresno County court. But both are quite familiar with uniforms -- as decorated National Guard members and also as former Fresno County inmates. They went to jail on New Year's Day 2014 after celebrations devolved into violence.

The women took two fellow soldiers -- a boyfriend and girlfriend -- to a Benavides family party. They told police they left after the man, Brian Santos, became abusive toward the woman, Tessia Laulu. But back at the Wills condo in East Central Fresno, the abuse continued, even as they tried to let the couple work it out.

"They heard a loud noise, so they went back inside and they saw Ms. Laulu getting up from the floor as if she had fallen down the stairs," said Fresno police officer Christopher Hinajos of the statements he got from the women.

Believing Santos pushed his girlfriend down the stairs, they called 911 and watched the couple go outside. The fight intensified. They say Santos decked Laulu at least twice, even as they tried to intervene on her behalf. Benavides-Wills told police Santos threw punches at all three women.

"The physical confrontation continued between the victim and Ms. Benavides at which time Ms. Benavides explained she lost track of Ms. Wills," Hinajos said. "She believes that's the point in time when she went to retrieve the knife."

Santos was pounding on Laulu again when Wills used the knife, which she admitted to the first police officer on the scene.

"She said, and I think it's in quotes, 'I'm not going to lie. I feared for my life and I stabbed him in self-defense.' Is that right?" Wills' defense attorney Michael Aed asked Hinajos.

"Yes sir," he replied.

Police say Laulu told them Wills did more than she needed to protect them all, so they got prosecutors to file murder charges.

The first judge to hear the case reduced bail from more than $1 million each to $50,000 -- which is the amount a manslaughter suspect would pay to get out.

A judge will decide later this week whether the couple should face murder charges, or manslaughter, or none at all.
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