Virgilio Méndez a 19-year-old Guatemalan, has been charged in the state of Florida for his involvement in the death of St. Johns County Deputy Michael Kunovich in May 2023.
The case has gained national attention, with 450,458 people signing a petition to release Mendez.
The medical examiner’s report says Kunovich died from an irregular heartbeat after an altercation with Mendez. Officials noted the struggle could have contributed to his death.
Mendez’ Attorney Phillip Arroyo calls his case “one of the greatest injustices he’s ever seen.” Arroyo says his client is a victim of police brutality and intends to file a federal lawsuit. He says there is not enough evidence and calls the case a “grave injustice” and “disheartening.”
“For the state to prove this beyond every reasonable doubt, they have to establish that Mr. Aguilar knew that Officer Kunovich had a heart condition, which I don’t know how they’re going to prove unless they’re going to try to argue that our client has x-ray vision,” Attorney Phillip Arroyo said.
Mendez does not speak English or Spanish, which are the languages officers attempted to address him in at the scene.
Arroyo says his team sent a letter to the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office and State Attorney’s Office demanding the charges against Mendez be dropped. He says if the charges are not dropped, he and his team will file a federal lawsuit claiming violation of their client’s constitutional rights. A petition in support of Aguilar Mendez also has almost half a million signatures.
“Mr. Virgilio was a victim of police brutality. He was a victim of racial profiling. He was a victim of violation of his fourth, fifth, and sixth amendment constitutional rights,” Arroyo said. “Those who are responsible for this abuse will be held accountable.”
The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office told First Coast News it will not provide any statements related to the case because it is pending prosecution. The State Attorney’s Office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday night.
Last week, a St. Johns County judge ruled Mendez incompetent to stand trial based on his lack of understanding of the American judicial process and ordered him to receive competency restoration treatment while being held at the Volusia County Jail.
“What’s problematic in this case, is that this individual is not intellectually disabled, necessarily, and he’s not mentally ill. So the Florida Statutes don’t contemplate a situation like this when it comes to long-term incompetence,” Attorney at Plata Schott Law, Shannon Schott said.
Shannon Schott, a partner at Plata Schott Law, is not involved in this case. She says Mendez has to be afforded his constitutional rights. Schott says the case is on pause until it is determined if Mendez is competent.
“The state can always dismiss without prejudice or with prejudice, and refile later if they so choose,” Schott said. “There is going to be a huge proof issue and a huge pretrial issue of motions that might result in the defense winning a motion to dismiss based on the fact that the evidence just is simply not there or judgment of acquittal at trial. Certainly the state has a tough decision in front of them. Anytime they are dismissing charges when there’s an alleged victim’s family and next of kin who has rights under Marcy’s Law. They have to have that tough conversation, but it is their duty to the community to explain that based on the evidence, it’s not likely that a conviction would be obtained in this case.”
Mendez is still in custody.