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Wednesday, December 19 , 2018, 6:08 am | Fair 43º


Jury Deliberating Fate of State Prison Inmate Accused in Santa Maria Valley Killing

Attorneys give their closing arguments in the trial of Joseph Brian Morales, charged in the 2014 fatal shooting of Javier Limon west of Guadalupe

Joseph Brian Morales murder trial Click to view larger
Joseph Brian Morales, left, stands next to his attorney, Michael Scott, on Friday in Santa Maria Superior Court. A state prison inmate, Morales is accused of orchestrating the murder of Javier Limon in 2014. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Jurors in a Santa Maria Superior Court trial began deliberating Friday the fate of a state prison inmate accused of orchestrating the murder of Javier Limon, whose body was found on the side of the road west of Guadalupe in 2014. 

Joseph Brian Morales, 30, has been charged with spearheading the gang- and drug-related fatal shooting of Limon using a cellphone he had illegally in his state prison cell to communicate with collegues in the Santa Maria Valley.

But a defense attorney claimed that Morales — known by the gang moniker Littles — did not have a role in the killing, saying the defendant had lost his power position in the gang and contending that authorities misinterpreted text messages. 

Authorities allege Morales gave the order that was relayed to Gregorio Agustine, another gang leader in Santa Maria. Three men — defendants Bryan Rios and Arturo Granados along with a third man referred to only as “Goon” — drove Limon to a farm field west of Guadalupe, where the 37-year-old victim was shot several times in August 2014.

In her closing argument, Chief Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Gresser urged jurors to “look at all the pieces together” as they review evidence. 

She told jurors that those involved were lying in wait, a key element to find him guilty of murder, by misleading Limon to get into the vehicle.

“This was orchestrated and preplanned to draw him out as a ruse of a drug deal in order to get him to that location,” Gresser said, adding the law did not require force to get Limon into the vehicle. 

While Morales testified he lost his gang leadership role on July 24, 2014, Gresser said the inmate actually remained active, giving orders for discipline and to collect “taxes” owed to the gang.

Morales and Agustine were working together, the prosecutor said, citing their conversations about a peace treaty involving local gangs. 

“You cannot deny he’s part of this. All of the evidence establishes that,” Gresser said. 

In addition to Agustine, a co-defendant who took a plea deal and claimed Morales gave the orders to act against Limon, other witnesses called by the prosecution included the inmate’s girlfriend plus a jail snitch who recorded conversations with a different co-defendant.

“What you can’t deny, though, is that there was absolutely no evidence in this trial that there is any connection between Javier Limon and Mr. Agustine other than the defendant,” Gresser said. “He is the only connection to Mr. Limon.”

Michael Scott, who represents Morales, said law enforcement officers misinterpreted text messages they were using to connect the defendant to the killing.

At the time of the fatal shooting, his client had authority only to collect money owed from when he was in power and before he lost his leadership role, Scott said.

The defense attorney said jurors must rule on the credibility of witnesses.

“I submit to you, as to the case of Gregorio Agustine, any testimony he had linking Mr. Morales to this crime is not to be believed,” Scott said. 

The state prison inmate, who testified in his own defense, claimed he was working with Limon to set up a big drug deal to sell a large quantity of heroin in the Santa Ynez Valley, bringing in revenue that Morales intended to use to pay off his own debts. 

“Mr. Morales has no motive to want Mr. Limon harmed,” Scott said, calling his client a hustler, not a killer. “No text messages corroborate the claim Mr. Morales ordered the killing.”

Furthermore, by testifying in his own defense, Morales violated a key rule of gang life, according to the defense attorney.

“He can never return to that life, never,” Scott said. “He put his life at risk by testifying. Why did he do that? To tell you the truth, so you would not convict him … so you could understand he’s not guilty of the death of Javier Limon.”

Closing arguments in the trial that began with jury selection in mid-August occurred Thursday afternoon and Friday morning. Judge James Voysey gave the case to the jurors by noon Friday. Jurors are scheduled to return Tuesday morning to continue deliberations. 

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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