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Arraignments Delayed for Defendants In MS-13 Gang Murder Case In Santa Maria

The defendants in a gang-related murder case that a judge called one of the largest in Santa Barbara County history appeared Friday in Superior Court, and were ordered to return in early December for arraignment.

The defendants, allegedly members of or associated with a violent international criminal street gang called MS-13, didn’t enter pleas during the Santa Barbara County Superior Court hearing before Judge John McGregor. 

Instead, the judge handled procedural matters before setting the Dec. 2 session for further arraignment, an unusually long length delay likely due to the complexity of the case.

Earlier this month, a Santa Barbara County criminal grand jury indicted 17 defendants for murder and other charges in connection with the slayings of 10 people, attempted murders of 14 people, and other charges.

Most of the defendants were arrested March 3 in a multiple agency effort dubbed Operation Matador, and initially charged with conspiracy of commit murder. 

Two new defendants were included in the grand jury indictment, with warrants issued for their arrest. They remain at large.

While Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen filed a motion to dismiss the original charges, some defense attorneys objected and sought time to file a motion opposing the dismissal.

“Today was just a very standard hearing, and we’ll come back on Dec. 2 for further  arraignment,” Bramsen said.

Normally arraignments are not delayed for months, but attorneys are still awaiting completion of the transcripts of the grand jury proceedings that led to indictments.

“It just gives the defense an opportunity to get the transcripts and be prepared,” Bramsen said. “They have to be prepared to represent their clients and right now they don’t have the information yet.”

Those facing murder charges include Jose Balmore Saravia Lainez, Jose Ricardo Saravia Lainez, Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres, Tranquilino Robles Morales, Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno, Jose Narcisco Escobar Hernandez, Luis German Mejia Orellana, Jose Juan Sanchez Torres, Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano, Olvin Serrano, Emedalio Mejia Bonilla, and Ezequiel Escalante-Rivera.

Those facing conspiracy charges include Jose Eleuteria Mejia Orellana, Jose Francisco Mejia Orellana, Jose Wilfredo Abarca Soriano, Rafael Lainez Castro and Mayra Ortega.

Grand jury proceedings are conducted in secret, but speculation among legal sources is that the panel heard testimony for more than a month behind closed doors.

During the criminal grand jury process, the prosecution presents evidence and witness testimony before the panel decided whether indictments are warranted.

Defendants and their attorneys are not part of the process and often are unaware the session is occurring.

The grand jury indictments mean a preliminary hearing, which occurs with the defendant and defense attorney present, won’t need to take place to determine if there is enough evidence to warrant a trial. 

Before the defendants were brought out in small groups Friday, the judge ruled in favor of a defense motion, filed by Adrian Andrade and supported by others, to ban the news media, including Noozhawk, from taking pictures or video.

McGregor said the California court rules allowing judges to consider a number of factors including the importance of maintaining the public trust in the judicial system.

Another factor to consider is the effect cameras in the courtroom would have on the defendants’ right to select a fair and unbiased jury, the judge added.

“This is a case of substantial importance involving a great number of defendants, 50 counts, and is going to be one of the largest cases to be heard in this county,” he said, adding that the nature of the case supports prohibiting cameras for Friday’s hearing.

George Kiriyama, managing editor for KCOY-TV, urged the judge to allow cameras, saying the media serves as “the eyes and the ears” of the public. 

Another large case, involving the gange-related death of Anthony Ibarra in Santa Maria, also had a large number of defendants but only six went to trial in 2015.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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