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Judge Denies Defense Motion To Dismiss Grand Jury Indictments In MS-13 Case

A judge on Friday declined to dismiss grand jury indictments charging a dozen men for multiple murders and other counts in Santa Maria despite passionate arguments from a defense attorney who contended his client was denied the right to counsel.

Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge John McGregor issued his ruling against defense attorney Tom Allen’s motion among several matters handled Friday morning in cases authorities contend are connected to the violent international criminal gang known as MS-13.

The case, called Operation Matador when several agencies united to make arrests March 3, saw multiple defendants taken into custody for suspicion of conspiracy to commit murder and other charges in Santa Maria and elsewhere. 

In July, a criminal grand jury indicted 18 people for dozens of felony counts including multiple murder charges. In all, the men are allegedly linked to several homicides in Santa Maria in the past few years.

Allen, who represents Emedalio Mejia Bonilla, 28, contended the grand jury proceedings, conducted in secret with prosecutors presenting evidence, violated his client’s Constitutional rights. He added he did not necessarily seek a preliminary hearing. 

“One of those absolute rights recognized forever in this country and in this state is a right to the effective assistance of counsel,” Allen said. “The process that was utilized by the People deprived him of the effective assistance of counsel.”

Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen opposed the motion, adding the California Constitution and the California Supreme Court ruled 26 years ago defendants do not have a right to preliminary hearing and that the grand jury is appropriate.

In his ruling, McGregor said an older decision in another case upheld the grand jury indictment process.

“Implicit in that is that there’s not a violation of a defendant’s due process rights or Constitutional rights to effective counsel utilizing that procedure,” McGregor said in denying the motion. “There are no cases in the subsequent 25 years since … that successfully challenged that decision.”

Other defense attorneys joined in Allen’s motion.

Robert Bettencourt, who represents Ezequiel Escalante-Rivera, 31, said the case is unique based on the large amount of discovery, or evidence items. He also noting his client had been in jail for nine months.

“I think the preliminary hearing process would be the appropriate remedy to a situation that is unique in these circumstances,” Bettencourt said, urging the judge to support the defense motion to guarantee the defendants’ fundamental due process rights.

Friday’s hearing included testy exchanges between the judge and Allen, who said he would not be cut off from making his arguments and McGregor saying he would allow reasonable arguments.

“For the court’s information, if we are unsuccessful, I want to make sure the record today is detailed and focus for the intention of purposes of intentionally seeking a writ,” Allen added.

In a procedural matter, the judge Friday supported the District Attorney’s Office motion to dismiss the original case against the defendants, since the indictments superseded those older charges.

The 12 defendants were ordered to return to court April 7 for a continued arraignment, a longer-than-normal wait to give defense attorneys time to review hundreds more pages of evidence received Friday on top of the tens of thousands of pages they were given previously.

The defendants have not entered pleas to charges in the indictment.

In April, the judge also expects to schedule a date to hear defense motions seeking to dismiss some of the cases. 

A separate hearing Friday involved two defendants charged with conspiracy to commit murder, but was interrupted by defendant, Rafael Lainez Castro, 31, who is represented by Tom Barnard.

As his defense attorney began requesting the arraignment be continued to Jan. 27, Castro interrupted.

“I refuse. I don’t want to waive no more time,” the defendant said, noting he has been jailed for nine months and doesn’t know what is going on in Santa Maria. 

He also asked for court dates closer together, before the judge instructed Castro to let his attorney address the court. 

“I’m sorry, your honor. I’ve been in jail for nothing that I haven’t done,” Castro said. 

Arrest warrants remain outstanding for two other defendants included in the second indictment.

Additionally, the lone woman indicted by the grand jury in this case has since pleaded guilty to having a concealed firearm and received credit for the time she spent in jail plus probation, Bramsen said.

Another woman originally arrested in the first case was not included in the indictment and since has been released from custody.

In a third indictment related to the case, a man, Fermin Rodas, was charged with perjury, Bramsen said. He is scheduled to be arraigned Jan. 12.

As is typical for large multiple defendant cases, the courtroom had additional bailiffs, with defendants and their attorneys seated in various locations to accommodate the large number while family members of both the defendants and victims were on hand for the hearing.

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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