Family photo
Ricardo Portillo, 46, died last month after he was punched in the head while refereeing a soccer game. A 17-year-old player charged in his death pleaded not guilty Friday to homicide by assault, a third-degree felony, in juvenile court.

SALT LAKE CITY — The family of a teenager charged with punching and killing a soccer referee apologized to the man's family for the first time Friday.

The apology came on the same day a judge determined the 17-year-old will remain in custody while hearings are held to determine whether he will be prosecuted as an adult for the death of Ricardo Portillo, 46.

“We want to tell the Portillo family how sorry we are and how horrible we all feel about what happened here,” Jose Domingo Teran’s sister, Joana, said, reading from a statement. “Jose and our family have thought of little else beyond the loss you must be feeling. We cannot imagine how much you miss your father and we hope you can find peace.”

Teran appeared in 3rd District Juvenile Court Friday, where he pleaded not guilty to homicide by assault, a third-degree felony, in the death of Portillo. He was refereeing a youth soccer match on April 27 when he called a foul against Teran, a 17-year-old goalie.

After issuing him a yellow card, the teen responded by punching Portillo "in the rear jaw area with a closed fist," according to the charges. Doctors at Intermountain Medical Center later told investigators that Portillo suffered a traumatic brain injury. He remained in a coma for a week before he died.

“I’ll just leave everything in God’s hands,” Portillo’s daughter, Johana Portillo, said Friday. “There’s no way for me to judge him. I forgive him for what he did to my dad. I forgive him, because that’s what my dad taught me — to be a forgiving person.”

Prosecutors are seeking to have Teran certified as an adult, which would mean he could face prison time if convicted. They also asked Judge Kim Hornak to hold the teenager in custody, which she agreed to do.

Deputy Salt Lake County attorney Patricia Cassell said her office had concerns that Teran may be a flight risk. “Immediately following this incident, his father removed him from the scene, even as others asked him to stay,” she said.

Defense attorney Monte Sleight said he would abide by the court’s decision, even though the idea of his client being a flight risk or danger to the community is “beyond the pale.”

“This is a kid with no history, no record,” Sleight said. "The allegation is he made one horrible decision. … In the big picture of things, this is a 17-year-old kid with a stable home environment, a loving family and I really wish the judge had returned him to the family.”

Attorneys for Teran fought to keep the hearing closed to the public. But attorney Jeff Hunt, who represented a coalition of media organizations including the Deseret News, argued that the law presumes juvenile court proceedings are open when a defendant is 14 or older and is charged with a felony. He said it is the minor's burden to overcome that presumption by providing good cause.

"This is a very, very unique case and the Legislature has carved out special access, Hunt said. "Different rules apply."

Sleight argued that there is "almost always" good cause to close juvenile court proceedings. He said he didn't want his client to have to worry about personal information he might share with a psychologist or social worker ending up in the public sphere, as it could come up in a certification hearing.

"The standard in juvenile court should be what it's been all along — concern for the minor and the minor's privacy,” he said.

Hornak ultimately decided that the hearings will be open to the public, with the exception of any testimony relating to medical, psychological, or psychiatric reports, or family or social summary reports.

Tony Yapias, a spokesman for the Portillo family, said they were pleased with Hornak’s decision.

"It was important for the family that this be opened," he said. "The family has always … been open to the media and that these hearings were open to media. They thought it was important, given the nature of the case, the publicity."

Teran’s sister said her family has not spoken to the media out of respect for Portillo’s family. Still, she said, concerns about the way he was being portrayed led them to speak with a reporter from Sports Illustrated “about the kind, loving son and brother our family has known for 17 years.”

“Our hopes and prayers are with the Portillo family, our beloved son and brother Jose, and all those entrusted to make decisions about Jose’s future,” she said.

Sleight said he will fight to keep his client’s case in juvenile court, reiterating that the case involves a teenager, a junior in high school, accused of making a snap judgment.

“This is a 17-year-old kid, this is one decision in his whole entire life and I hope that we as a society aren’t going to hold a 17-year-old accountable to the adult system because of this alleged decision,” Sleight said. “We have a juvenile court system to help protect us from our own folly.”

Meantime, Yapias said, it is important to remember what one family has lost and he urged those in the community to learn from the loss of Ricardo Portillo.

“There’s a family, three kids here, who won’t be there with their dad anymore,” he said. “We need to continue to remind the community that no matter what sport you play, play the game. Don’t get violent. This is not a way to resolve problems.”

The certification hearing is scheduled for Aug. 5-6.

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