Under Pamela Price, his murder charge became manslaughter. Now he is free.

Alameda County DA Pamela Price said James Vega should not spend decades behind bars "for a tragic mistake." Now he's out after 2.5 years.

Under Pamela Price, his murder charge became manslaughter. Now he is free.
DA Pamela Price says she wants to restore trust in the criminal justice system. Critics say she's failing victims and their families. Emilie Raguso/The Berkeley Scanner

Jarin Purvis was 28 years old when James Vega, also 28, shot him in the face while they hung out with friends in April 2020.

Vega was charged with murder and a serious gun enhancement in the months after the killing, which took place in Castro Valley. He was facing a possible prison sentence of at least 40 years to life.

Then, in June, Alameda County DA Pamela Price reduced the murder charge to involuntary manslaughter. She also dropped the gun enhancement.

She said the killing had been "clearly, a mistake."

Purvis' family has rejected that narrative, saying Vega intentionally pointed his gun at Purvis' head and pulled the trigger, even after Purvis told him to stop.

Vega also lied to cover up the crime, looking to dispose of Purvis' body and telling officers Purvis shot himself, according to the family and court papers.

He pleaded guilty to manslaughter in June.

At 31, Vega is now a free man, the case over, after serving 2.5 years at Santa Rita Jail.

In recent months, Patricia Harris and James Purvis, Jarin's parents, have become increasingly outspoken about their frustration over Price's handling of the case.

"She will not meet with us. She will not speak with us," Harris said of Price at a rally in August. "She does not understand or feel our loss."

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“As a mother, I cannot accept this,” one woman said. “How can you protect your community if you’re going to do that?”

"It’s not justice"

Family and friends of Jarin Purvis, who was killed in 2020, say they are disappointed in how the Alameda County DA's office has handled his case. Emilie Raguso/The Berkeley Scanner

On Monday, during an emotional court hearing, about a dozen of Jarin Purvis' friends and family members pleaded with an Alameda County judge to put Vega on probation.

But Judge Kimberly Colwell said her hands were tied.

She said probation wasn't an option because Vega had already served his full sentence of 4 years and 8 months.

That's due to a combination of the nearly 900 days he spent in jail and an equal amount of credit for time served.

Sentences are set by statute, depending on the crime, which can eliminate judicial discretion.

"He served the full custody time," Judge Colwell said from the bench. "I am limited by what the charges in the case are."

People can only be placed on probation if they are freed before serving their full sentence. They give up some of their rights in exchange for early release.

But that did not apply to Vega. By the time he entered his guilty plea, he'd already served the full amount of time allowed under the charges as amended by Price.

"I don’t believe that the court has the authority to put him onto probation, as it is charged and as we are here," Vega's attorney, Annie Beles, argued Monday. "There can be no supervision — because all of the time has been used up."

Read more about Pamela Price on The Scanner.

Deputy District Attorney Edward Vieira-Ducey said probation was all he could ask for given the amended charges.

He said the judge could set aside the sentence and put Vega on probation instead.

Colwell ultimately disagreed with that position.

"I will not be granting probation because I do not believe I am allowed to under the law," she said.

On the record, Vieira-Ducey described the outcome of the case as "wholly inadequate" given the circumstances of the crime and Vega's conduct.

And he said he knew the Purvis family did not feel they had been heard by the Alameda County district attorney's office.

Jarin's family members at a rally for justice in August. Emilie Raguso/TBS

After the hearing, the Purvis family told Vieira-Ducey he should have done more to seek justice for Jarin.

They accused him of accepting the short sentence too easily and said he failed to fight for them.

"I have never been OK with the time," Vieira-Ducey told the family. "This was the decision that was made above me."

Several members of the group invoked DA Pamela Price and her role in the case.

"We are deputy district attorneys," Vieira-Ducey explained to them, adding: "If she decides to do something, she gets to do it."

The scene became heated enough at times that several sheriff's deputies took positions nearby to keep an eye on the interaction.

James Purvis, Jarin's father, said it felt like the family had been abandoned by the DA's office.

"We go home, he go home," he said of Vega, in disgust. "They don't care."

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The people who attended Monday's hearing, and confronted Vieira-Ducey afterward, included members of the group seeking to recall Pamela Price.

One of them was Virginia Nishita. Her husband Kevin was killed while providing security for a KRON4 reporter during an attempted robbery in Oakland in 2021.

Nishita has said she is worried that Price will reduce the charges in the murder case at some point before trial.

She came to know Vieira-Ducey when he was the prosecutor on her husband's case during a major hearing last year.

"Edward, I believed in you," she told him after court Monday, weeping. "How could you do this to us? Kevin’s not gonna get justice either."

"I’ve seen too many of these. I've talked to too many families," she continued. "And I've been hearing the same thing: last-minute changes, not telling us what’s gonna happen. It’s not right. It’s not justice."

The recall group, an effort the Purvis family is also vocally supporting, is holding a town hall event Saturday, Sept. 30, "for victims who want to be heard." (See the event flier.)

The group expects to begin signature collection in the coming weeks after the registrar of voters approves the final petition form.

"One-sided conversations with the sky"

Family and friends of Jarin Purvis say justice has not been served in his case. Courtesy

Monday's hearing got off to a rocky start when the family was directed by the DA's office to the wrong Oakland courthouse.

They had been told to go to the main courthouse by the lake, but the hearing actually happened in a different building about a mile away.

As a result, the family said, some people were unable to make it to the important event.

And no one ever warned them that probation might be off the table, they said.

Monday's issues were only the latest in what felt like a series of slights by the DA's office in recent months, the family said.

It all began when they were informed abruptly by email that DA Pamela Price had decided to significantly reduce the charges in their son's case.

Before Price, the family said, no one at the DA's office ever suggested any problems with the case as charged under former DA Nancy O'Malley.

Since then, requests by the family had been ignored. Vega was released from custody. And the original sentencing date, which had been scheduled for early August, was postponed.

It all felt like a slap in the face.

"She does not understand or feel our loss," said Patricia Harris, of DA Pamela Price, at a rally in August. Emilie Raguso/TBS

The sentencing hearing, which families wait years to attend, is often heavy with anticipation, grief and other intense emotions.

It's a key moment in a criminal case, the first chance for victims and their families to speak on the record about the loss and trauma they've experienced.

Monday was no exception.

Before Colwell issued her ruling, Jarin's family and friends addressed the court about how they had struggled — with his death and also with the legal process.

They spoke of his bright smile, his dance moves that could "shake the whole world," his hardworking ethos and his kindness.

They also repeatedly rejected the notion that Vega and Purvis had been friends.

They said a friend would never have lied after the killing or tried to blame it on Jarin himself.

"You were never his 'best friend,' you were never even his friend," wrote James Purvis, Jarin's father. "You were a mistake in his life. His friends are nothing like you."

"He tried to make you a better person," he continued. "What he got in return was a bullet in the face."

Alton Purvis, Jarin's uncle and godfather, said Vega had made numerous decisions for which he should have been held accountable.

"This was a reckless act," he said. "How do you accidentally aim, point and fire? I don’t see that as being an accident at all. Especially when somebody's saying, get the gun outta my face."

DA Pamela Price did not attend Monday's hearing, but Alton Purvis addressed her anyway: "To her I say, this job is too big."

He said he understood the need for "education over incarceration" — but he said it wasn't always the answer.

"Not for people who commit murder," he said. "They need to do some time. They need to do something to rectify that. In this case, that has not been done."

Jarin's sister wrote about the milestones in her life her big brother had now missed: high school graduation, birthdays, college applications.

"Because of you, he is missing all the things he and I used to dream about doing together," she wrote, addressing Vega. "Instead of being able to do these things with him, I now have to do them in honor of him."

"You made my world unimaginable," she continued. "You left me with one-sided conversations with the sky."

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“There are so many families like us,” said Teresita Mendoza. “If we all come together, we can do something.”

Some of the statements became part of the file but were not read in court.

Jarin, wrote cousin Pat Johnson, "was a kid of hope who grew to be a young man of endless possibilities."

They both worked at Apple's corporate office and carpooled into the office together daily.

"Every morning, we would have conversations about emotional and intellectual intelligence and how you can mix that with hard work and a purpose greater than ourselves to have a true impact on the world," Johnson wrote. "We talked about cars and one day making so much money that our parents no longer have to work."

Close friend Adam Murphy said the issues with the justice system had only added to the family's grief.

He said the DA's handling of the case had been "unsatisfactory and disrespectful" and that Purvis' killer should not have been freed so fast.

He said he often dreamed of Jarin.

"Every time I wake up, I try to go back to sleep because these are the only times I can see my friend again," he said. "When I found out he was killed, my world stopped."

Patricia Harris, Jarin's mother, said Price's decisions and her leniency had been a deep disappointment.

"This family will be unable to find peace as long as there is no justice for this crime," she told the judge. "We will continue to fight the injustice … until James Vega is again behind bars."

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"A tragic mistake"

Annie Beles, Vega's defense attorney, said her client would not address the court Monday in keeping with her advice.

"I don’t want him to talk about this anymore," she said. "That's on me."

She said Vega had previously expressed remorse and had written an apology letter in 2020.

"He was playing around with a gun and he shot someone. That’s what happened and he feels terrible about that," Beles said.

Of Jarin, she added: "Nothing in this room is going to bring back this young man."

During Monday's hearing, Beles said Vega had agreed to pay approximately $20,000 in restitution fines and fees.

Judge Colwell noted that the gun used to kill Jarin Purvis would be "forfeited and destroyed." She said Vega would be prohibited from gun possession in the future.

"Do whatever you can in your life to get on track," she advised him, including counseling "to get your life together to go forward."

Colwell also acknowledged the frustration in the room.

"I know feelings are running high," she said. "This is a very tragic event."

Colwell said the outcome of the case ultimately came down to the charges and the law, which did not allow for discretion as to the length of the sentence.

"That’s what it was charged as," she said. "I cannot change the charges."

Colwell said the amended charges had come from "somewhere in the district attorney's office," adding, "I don't know who."

According to a statement in June from the DA's office, "Witnesses said Vega and Purvis were playing with the gun and laughing when the gun accidentally fired. Purvis was shot in the face and killed. Vega told police he did not realize the gun was loaded."

"This man did not intentionally shoot his friend," DA Price said in the June statement. "His behavior was inexcusably negligent but this was an accident. While we deeply empathize with Mr. Purvis’ family and friends, James Joseph Vega should not, potentially, spend decades of his life behind bars for a tragic mistake."

Pamela Price's office did not respond this week to a request for comment.

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