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Defense Attorney Again Asks to Be Court-Appointed Counsel in MS-13 Gang Case

A privately hired attorney representing a defendant in a case stemming from Operation Matador renewed his efforts to become the court-appointed counsel for Rafael Lainez Castro as talks continue regarding a possible plea deal.

Attorney Gary Dunlap appeared in Santa Barbara County Superior Court on Friday, and said his client wanted to postpone the arraignment hearing to allow the defense time to meet with Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office representatives.

Castro is one of two remaining defendants in a smaller case related to another case in which a dozen men face murder and other charges.

The 12 defendants in the larger case were not in court Friday. Both cases will return Feb. 9 when the men reportedly will enter pleas.

In July 2016, a criminal grand jury indicted 17 defendants, with those in the larger case facing 50 charges related to the deaths of 10 people and allegations of conspiracy to murder 14 others. 

The multiple-defendant cases stem from Operation Matador, led by the Santa Maria Police Department and involving multiple law enforcement agencies when undertaken on March 3, 2016, with arrests in Santa Maria, Oxnard, Kern County and Ohio.

Months later, after hearing weeks of evidence, a criminal grand jury handed down indictments against the men alleged to have ties to the violent criminal gang dubbed MS-13, and also known as Mara Salvatrucha. 

Castro has been charged with criminal street gang conspiracy and conspiracy to commit a crime.

Dunlap’s request Friday came after Judge John McGregor privately told the attorneys he declined to disqualify himself from the case as Dunlap sought in an earlier motion.

During the Friday hearing, Dunlap renewed his motion to be designated a court-appointed counsel — a ruling that would allow him to be paid by the state, not the client — and to have the assistance of a second attorney on the case.

Since being in jail, Castro has lost his auto-repair business, Dunlap said, adding that his client and his family have no funds to pay for a private attorney. 

“He’s the only one that does not have an appointed attorney or a compensated attorney,” Dunlap said Friday outside of court.

“The court offered to let me withdraw and appoint a new lawyer but refused to appoint me to be his continuing lawyer,” Dunlap said.

Before choosing to hire Dunlap, Castro had a court-appointed attorney for many months like the other defendants.

Dunlap said that bringing a new lawyer to the case would add a 6-month delay for the defendant who has a right to go to trial within 60 days after entering a plea.

In the 20,000 pages of discovery received from the prosecution team, only 100 pages refer to Castro’s alleged involvement, Dunlap said. 

“His position is you pick your friends, you don’t pick your family,” Dunlap said of his client. “He can’t really help the fact that he’s got a cousin who is a gang member, and he talked to him on four occasions, which is the extent of the evidence they have against him.”

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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