Man Held in Shovel Murder
A teenager accused of killing a man with a shovel in Southern Pines early Saturday morning made his first appearance in Moore County Superior Court Monday.
Southern Pines police arrested Carlos Castillo, 18, and charged him with murder after he allegedly struck Wilbalbo Balbuena, 31, in the head during a gathering at a trailer park at 1225 Central Drive, according to police Lt. Rodney Hardy.
Castillo was originally charged with aggravated assault, but the charge was upgraded to first-degree murder after Balbuena died while being airlifted to UNC Hospitals. He appeared in court for the first time Monday to face charges that could lead to the death penalty.
Lydia Floren, a friend of Castillo, said after the court hearing that Castillo had been acting in self-defense. She said Castillo grabbed a shovel and hit Balbuena in an effort to protect others.
"It was self-defense," Floren said. "He threatened Claudio's mom and dad, and he had a knife."
During the hearing, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James M. Webb patiently explained Castillo's rights to him again and again, but the defendant -- who speaks little English -- had a hard time understanding.
"Do you understand the charges against you?" Webb asked Castillo, who nodded uncertainly. "The maximum sentence if convicted of first-degree murder in North Carolina is death, or life without possibility of parole."
Castillo had signed an affidavit of indigency, asking for court-appointed counsel -- a virtual necessity in capital cases where, even at state rates, costs routinely exceed $100,000, according to Webb.
Castillo's mother and father and a 16-year-old brother were in court, along with Floren, who offered to translate for the defendant. As she was not a certified court translator, that was not permitted. She said that the family intended to hire a lawyer to defend Castillo.
Webb tried over and over to get both family and defendant to understand the costs involved. Castillo appeared uncertain as to whether he was asking for court-appointed counsel, often answering, "No," and shaking his head when Webb asked if he understood.
Castillo appeared to be puzzled by the legalistic language. Webb had already gone over the defendant's rights repeatedly and had asked him if he had a lawyer. He didn't.
"Sir, I am a friend of the family," Floren said, rising from her seat in the second row. "We are in the process of hiring Richard Costanza."
In response to Webb's questions from the bench, Floren introduced Castillo's mother, Minerva Martinez, his father, Lucio Gaspar Mendel, and one of his three brothers. She told the judge that Castillo and his brothers were all native-born U.S. citizens, as was she.
"It is the court's responsibility to make sure this defendant understands," Webb said. "Until an attorney has been hired or retained, I am inclined to notify the authorities in Durham or Raleigh. I do not believe you have the resources to hire a lawyer today. I am going to appoint. If after that you hire a lawyer, any court of competent jurisdiction can replace appointed counsel."
Webb found Castillo "indigent and entitled to appointed counsel as contemplated by law."
In the hallway outside the courtroom, people tried to help Floren and the family to understand that Webb was trying to help them, that expert attorneys with long experience in defending capital cases would now come to represent Castillo.
Local Carthage attorney Matthew Rothbeind, who had been standing nearby conferring with a client, came over to translate. He knew both parents from an earlier incident in which Mendel had been attacked.
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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