2010 Aurora cold case comes to completion with life sentence for Fennell

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AURORA | The first person prosecuted by a new Arapahoe County cold case unit was sentenced to life in prison last week for killing a man in 2010.

James Mercedes Fennell, 25, received the sentence Dec. 18 for the November 2010 slaying of 28-year-old Juan Miranda-Hernandez of Aurora.

Fennell had long been a suspect in the slaying, but prosecutors initially balked at Aurora police Detective Tom Sobieski’s request to charge him with first-degree murder.

James Mercedes FennellAfter District Attorney George Brauchler took office in 2013 and formed a new cold case unit in the 18th Judicial District, the unit took on the case and police arrested Fennell that spring.

The case went to trial last summer and jury convicted Fennell of first-degree murder, robbery and other charges.

Brauchler said Fennel’s sentence shows that prosecutors will continue to pursue cases even after they seem to have gone cold.

“I established this unit specifically to address the backlog of over 200 unsolved cases in our jurisdiction. For me, that’s 200 victims and countless loved ones who need answers and closure,” he said in a statement announcing the sentence.

Prosecutors say Fennell tried to rob Miranda-Hernandez and the victim’s apartment but Miranda-Hernandez fought back. They say Fennell hit the victim in the head with his gun then shot him in the back and left him to die.

In court documents, prosecutors said at least three people identified Fennell as being at Miranda-Hernandez’s apartment the night he was killed.

A few days after the slaying, Fennell and another man were arrested on weapons charges in Aurora after police say the pair shot at a group of men near East Third Avenue and Sable Boulevard. After that arrest, police recovered a .22 caliber revolver.

Colorado Bureau of Investigation analysts later determined that based on ballistics tests, the gun could have been the one that fired the shot that killed Miranda-Hernandez.

Investigators also ran a DNA test on a hair found on the gun and determined it came from Miranda-Hernandez.

The man who Fennell was arrested with in the drive-by case told investigators that the revolver was his, but that Fennell had it at the time Miranda-Hernandez was killed.

Fennell’s defense team, however, filed several motions and argued that there were holes in the prosecution’s case. For one, the defense argued that cell phone data, including information from cell phone towers that say Fennell was in the area of Miranda-Hernandez’s apartment on the night of the slaying, are often inaccurate. They also objected to the photo lineups police showed the witnesses who identified Fennell as being there the night of Miranda-Hernandez’s slaying.

After a judge sent Fennell to prison for the rest of his life, Deputy District Attorney John Kellner, one of the cold case unit prosecutors who handled the case, credited Sobieski for sticking with the case.

“We were able to get justice for Juan because of Detective Sobieski’s unwillingness to let this case go.  Detective Sobieski knew that Juan’s family not only deserved to know what happened, but know that the person who murdered him would have to answer for their actions,” he said in a statement.

Assistant District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, who also prosecuted the case, said it is important that Miranda-Hernandez is remembered.

“He worked three different jobs to support his family and was dependable and responsible. It’s very clear that Juan’s death continues to devastate the loved ones he left behind,” he said. “Our hope for them is this sentence gives them some semblance of peace after their unimaginable loss.”

The cold case unit has so far filed charges in three other Aurora cases. Jon Harrington is awaiting trial in connection with a 2002 murder and Sonny Torres is awaiting trial for a 2007 attempted murder. A third man, Hosea Brown, was sentenced last year to four years in prison on felony assault charges stemming from a 1996 attack.

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