Jail staff knew that admitted killer Ezequiel Zayas was mentally ill and should not have placed him in the cell that day, his lawyer said.

A man who killed one of his cellmates at the Oahu Community Correctional Center three years ago was sentenced Wednesday to consecutive prison terms totaling up to 40 years after the judge in the case declared he “poses a significant, lethal danger to his community.”

Ezequiel Zayas, 30, pleaded guilty to manslaughter earlier this year in the killing of 62-year-old Vance Grace while the two men shared a quarantine cell with another inmate near the peak of the pandemic.

He also pleaded guilty to first-degree burglary and other lessor charges in several unrelated cases, including a bizarre 2019 incident that attracted national media attention after Zayas entered a Honolulu home and squatted there while the family was traveling on the mainland.

Zayas had to be confronted and forced to leave the house when the family returned, and Circuit Court Judge Rowena Somerville said Zayas “left a graphic video on the family computer detailing his plans to perform surgeries on the family.”

Ezequiel Zayas
Ezequiel Zayas appears before Honolulu Circuit Court Judge Rowena Somerville for sentencing in the slaying of his cellmate at the Oahu Community Correctional Center in 2020. (Kevin Dayton/Civil Beat/2023)

Somerville cited Zayas’ multiple acts of violence before sentencing, saying he had shown “extreme callousness” toward his victims. And she said doctors who evaluated Zayas concluded that he poses a high risk of future violence.

She also cited medical records that showed “defendant has been singular, malevolent and truculent, replete with mental preoccupations of raping children, Satanism, and various forms of assault.”

In the OCCC killing, Somerville said Zayas attacked Grace “without provocation” in the cell they shared on Aug. 31, 2020, knocked him unconscious, then stomped on Grace’s head after Grace slumped over on his stomach on the floor.

Zayas’ lawyer Nelson Goo said corrections officials knew Zayas was mentally ill.

“They should never have put Mr. Zayas in that cell knowing of his condition. He should have been in isolation” in the mental health module at the jail,” Goo said.

Zayas, who was raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut, was treated for mental illness before he arrived in Hawaii. “He was doing really well while on medication,” but he went off his medication and deteriorated, Goo said.

Goo argued unsuccessfully that Somerville should allow Zayas’ sentences to run concurrently. “Given the right medication, he does really, really well,” Goo said.

Goo said Zayas had no criminal record before the burglary and the attack on Grace, and he “does express extreme remorse about what has happened.”

Zayas, who appeared in court in shackles, sweatpants and a sweatshirt, briefly apologized in a low voice to members of Grace’s family.

Grace’s brother Abraham, 66, told Zayas before the sentencing that his family is angry about Vance Grace’s slaying, but “I wanted to tell him that I forgive him. The Lord I worship tells me that I need to forgive him.”

“The Lord also tells me that all that hate and anger that I have towards him, I won’t have to carry that with me for life. I don’t want to do that,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to tell him, that I forgive him for the murder of my brother.”

Zayas was finally sentenced to up to 20 years in prison for manslaughter, and another 10-year term prison term for first-degree burglary. He got additional consecutive five-year terms for second-degree burglary and second-degree assault in separate cases.

Zayas was originally charged with first-degree murder in Vance’s slaying. If he had been convicted on that charge, he would have faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.

Nelson Colburn, Vance Grace’s son, is suing the state in connection Grace’s death. The lawsuit alleges state officials “knowingly placed Mr. Grace in jeopardy of serious injury and death, and failed to follow basic common sense correctional practices that would have prevented Mr. Grace’s brutal murder at the hands of a violent cellmate.”

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