December 1, 2023
The trial for Jose Rafael Solano Landaeta was marked with bizarre moments including him abruptly going nonresponsive mid-testimony, and claiming to not recognize victim Karina Castro, his child's mother.

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REDWOOD CITY — Jurors have reached a guilty verdict in a notorious murder case against a man charged with beheading his child’s mother on a San Carlos street last year in front of several bystanders, capping a bizarre trial in which the defendant was accused of gaming his mental illness to dupe the jury.

Jose Rafael Solano Landaeta, 34, of Hayward, was charged with killing 27-year-old Karina Castro on Sept. 8, 2022 not far from her apartment off Laurel Street on the Peninsula city. The jury found him guilty of first-degree murder and confirmed an additional allegation of using a sword in the slaying.

After the primary verdict was announced in a hushed Redwood City courtroom Monday afternoon — eliciting loud sobs from Castro’s family and friends — jurors were asked to deliberate a series of aggravating factors, encompassing the domestic violence and other dimensions of the case, which along with the sword allegation could affect the length of sentence Solano eventually receives.

The murder trial was notable because Solano’s direct culpability not at issue. Eyewitnesses recounted watching the slaying unfold the afternoon of Sept. 8, 2022 in the middle of Laurel Street, not far from where Castro lived. They testified they were walking by when they first saw Solano and Castro argue, then watched in horror as Solano retrieved a sword from his car and brutally attacked a fleeing Castro.

Solano even offered a confession of sorts when he returned to the crime scene and reportedly told a San Mateo County Sheriff’s deputy, “She was trying to kill me, I’m sorry.”

Over the course of the two-week jury trial, prosecutor Josh Stauffer contended that Solano was driven to kill Castro, with whom the defendant shared a young daughter, out of vengeance as their toxic relationship devolved into social media and text message threats and insults. That included messages Solano sent to a friend talking about how Castro and text messages Solano sent in which he said things like Castro needed to be “smoked” and “86’d.”

FILE – Jose Landaeta, accused of beheading his ex-girlfriend Karina Castro with a sword in San Carlos, at a preliminary hearing on Wednesday, March 1, 2023 in San Mateo, California. (Pool/David Buchan for DailyMail.com) 

He dismissed Solano’s legal defense, which right before trial pivoted from an insanity defense to one of imperfect self-defense, as well as claims that Castro attacked him first with a small knife. He called this theory a fabrication that did not align with the viciousness of the sword attack in which witnesses testified that Solano hacked at a prone Castro’s head and neck “eight to 10 times” after she has already been seriously wounded by a series of earlier sword slashes.

“This isn’t self defense. This was a man enraged,” Stauffer said in his closing arguments Friday. “He brutally murdered Ms. Castro, brutally murdered her, and then he played games with you.”

The mention of “games” was a reference to a sequence at trial last Monday when, while under cross-examination by Stauffer, Solano seemed to shut down mentally and physically and fell into a stupor where he looked down and did not respond to either Stauffer or Judge Lisa Novak.

Once Novak called off the rest of the trial day, Solano visibly perked up and started to talking to a bailiff, fueling an assertion by Stauffer, and echoed by court-appointed doctors and correctional medical staff, that Solano was manipulating his medication consumption and behavior to appear mentally compromised to the jury.

Stauffer highlighted how during his brief answers during the cross-examination, Solano claimed to not recognize a photo of Castro and denied killing her, a fact not in dispute at trial.

But Solano’s defense team, led by attorney Robert Cummings, argued that the defendant’s behavior was indicative of legitimate effects from diagnosed paranoid schizophrenia.

Cummings argued that the slaying unfolded only after Castro attacked Solano with a small knife during the fatal confrontation, and that his mind was clouded by earlier threats Castro made against Solano and his family. All of this was compounded by the claim that Solano had not been taking his psychiatric medications.

“That belief at that point in time is what justified Mr. Solano in his actions,” Cummings told jurors during his closing Friday, in seeking an acquittal or a lesser manslaughter conviction. “His mind is not like yours and mine. It is stricken with schizophrenia. He has a sick mind … what matters is what’s going on in his mind.”

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