Peninsula beheading defendant stalemates cross examination by going nonresponsive

REDWOOD CITY — A man charged with beheading his child’s mother with a sword in San Carlos last year appeared to go into a stupor and become completely nonresponsive to a prosecutor while taking the stand Monday, prompting a judge to call off the rest of the afternoon’s trial proceedings.

The bizarre occurrence immediately elicited an insinuation that Jose Rafael Solano Landaeta was putting on an act.

Prosecutor Josh Stauffer insisted that it be written into the court record that as soon as Judge Lisa Novak formally ended the day’s hearing, Solano started talking again, in part to complain about how he was physically prodded during his noncommunicative bout. The spell lasted several minutes in open court and likely longer during an impromptu break during which the public was cleared from the courtroom.

Before Stauffer’s cross examination of Solano began mid-afternoon Monday, the defendant was terse but responsive to defense attorney Robert Cummings’ questioning about the aftermath of the slaying of 27-year-old Karina Castro.

Solano recalled being disoriented, scared and paranoid before he reportedly returned to the crime scene and approached police examining the site surrounding Castro’s mutilated body on Laurel Street the afternoon of Sept. 8, 2022.

“I bugged out,” Solano said in court Monday. “All I remember is I forgot how to talk … I was so paranoid.”

Solano and his legal defense team withdrew an insanity defense before the jury trial began last week, which followed more than a year of pretrial proceedings that included a mental competency evaluation that ultimately led to him being declared fit for trial.

Still, by the looks of his conduct in court as well as the statements that he did make Monday, Solano was trying to make it clear to the jury that his mental health was not right when he allegedly hacked Castro to death. His legal stance is that he was acting in “imperfect self defense,” built on a claim that Castro had attacked him with two small knives and had made threatening comments against him and his family, with the whole situation compounded by him being off his medication prescribed for paranoid schizophrenia.

When it was time for Stauffer to ask questions, Solano became evasive and denied basic tenets of fact in the case. When Stauffer presented what appeared to be a driver’s license photo of Castro — with whom Solano had a strained, toxic relationship, according to people who knew them — and asked Solano if he recognized the image, he replied: “I don’t know.”

“Are you telling this jury you don’t recognize the person in this photo?” Stauffer asked.

Soon after, the prosecutor asked, “Did you kill her?” Solano responded: “No.”

That was as far as the cross examination got Monday. Solano asked for a bathroom break, and Novak called for a 10-minute recess. But then it was announced to the courtroom gallery, now waiting in the second-floor hallway of the Redwood City courthouse, that the break would last 25 more minutes.

The trial eventually resumed, but not for long. Stauffer asked Solano if he recognized his own voice in a recorded phone call to his father around the time of the killing. Solano became nonresponsive, staring blankly down and not acknowledging the question.

When the judge asked Solano if he understood the question, there was still no response. The moment was reminiscent of Solano’s arraignment last year, in which he similarly looked down and did not acknowledge the proceedings surrounding him.

After a sidebar with the two main attorneys, Novak cleared the courtroom. After another 30 minutes, the judge announced that the trial was done for the day.

Soon after, Stauffer declared that in the seconds after Novak made her announcement, Solano perked up and could be seen talking to bailiffs in what he called a “marked change” in behavior. Novak also acknowledged the shift.

Solano appeared to be irritated by the discussion and its implications.

“I am now,” he said, referring to talking again. “I had a major panic attack. I have major PTSD. Everybody thinks I’m a liar.”

As the courtroom was being cleared out, Solano exhibited further agitation while talking to Cummings, and could be heard grousing and proposing that he get a new attorney. Cummings could not immediately be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

Castro’s father, Martin Castro Jr., said he was “in shock” at the turn of events in court Monday.

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“He can just do whatever he wants in there. He can just decide to shut down,” he said outside the courtroom.

Martin Castro added that he was incredulous that Solano denied killing his daughter, when the hearings to this point have demonstrated a consensus that Solano indeed killed Castro, and that the crux of the trial is whether it was out of vengeance or self defense.

“I just worry about getting him convicted,” he said.

Prosecutors allege that Solano called off sick from his job later that morning, went home to Hayward to grab his sword, and then drove to San Carlos to confront Castro.

Witnesses have recalled that during the confrontation, Castro could be seen running away from Solano as he swung the sword over and over — leaving a pool of blood from one arm that was nearly chopped off, as well as a trail of her blonde hair that was being cut from her head with every swing. By the end, one of Castro’s arms had been nearly cut off, and an autopsy determined that she suffered at least 7 strikes to her head and neck with the sword.

The slaying was so grisly that Novak has disallowed graphic images of crime scene from being shown on the courtroom’s TV screen and being visible to the courtroom gallery, which has consistently been filled with Castro’s family and friends. Instead, paper handouts of images presented as evidence have been distributed to court staff, attorneys, and jurors.

The jury will be back in the courtroom Tuesday afternoon.

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