Defense attorneys for three men accused of murder, attempted murder and criminal conspiracy in the multi-defendant MS-13 case gave opening statements in the Santa Barbara trial Tuesday morning.
They all said they will be asking the jury to return not-guilty verdicts for their clients.
The three men facing trial in Santa Barbara are Jose Ricardo Saravia Lainez, represented by attorney Billy Redell; Jose Balmore Saravia Lainez, represented by Ron Bobo; and Jose Narciso Escobar Hernandez, represented by Meghan Behrens. Jose Ricardo Saravia Lainez and Jose Balmore Saravia Lainez are brothers.
Five more men connected to the case are facing trial in a Santa Maria courtroom.
Law enforcement officers say the men belong to the violent criminal gang known as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and the local group is known as Santa Maria Little Salvi Locos Salvatrucha (SMLS’LS).
Prosecutors from the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office gave opening statements on Friday outlining the case to the 12 jurors and 12 alternate jurors selected for the trial, which is expected to take several months. All three defendants are using Spanish-language interpretation services in court.
On Tuesday, Behrens told jurors that they were going to hear a lot of testimony about Santa Maria-area gangs, wiretaps, and firearms examiners connecting guns to shooting scenes in this case.
“The prosecution will only play the tapes that fit the narrative of their case,” Behrens said of wiretap evidence.
She noted that messages have been translated from Spanish to English, and that there will be testimony about the translation process and the interpretation of the messages.
“The meaning of the words will be twisted to meet the narrative,” said Behrens, who represents Hernandez.
She also said that jurors will have to weigh the credibility of each person who testified, including witnesses who received immunity agreements for their own criminal allegations.
Redell said there is no evidence that his client, Jose Ricardo Saravia Lainez, was in the area of the killings, or had plans to or was aware of plans to kill or injure the victims. Law enforcement officers found a gun in Lainez’s home when they searched it in 2016, “but that gun was not used in any of these incidents,” Redell said.
“He’s not a killer, and he didn’t kill anyone and he didn’t conspire to kill anyone,” Redell said.
Bobo is representing Jose Balmore Saravia Lainez and referred to him as Balmore in his opening statements to help differentiate the names of each co-defendant.
Bobo said his client came to the United States when he was 15 and started working in the fields in Santa Maria before being promoted to agricultural industry coolers for packing work. Bobo also said his client was trying to “separate himself” from gang life.
There is no evidence tying Balmore Lainez to the murders except cell tower pings allegedly putting him in the area of two of them, Bobo said. One of those crime scenes is near his house, and the other incident targeted one of his own family friends, “so he wouldn’t have been involved in that,” Bobo argued in his opening statements.
“Evidence is going to be clear in many ways that my client is not guilty,” he said.
The prosecution called its first witness Tuesday morning, Santa Maria Police Sgt. Scott Casey, who testified about his local law enforcement experience with gang cases.
The case is scheduled to continue Wednesday in Judge Michael Carrozzo’s courtroom in Santa Barbara County Superior Court.
In opening statements Friday, prosecutor Kelly Duncan talked about a string of Santa Maria shootings and victims allegedly connected to the defendants in the case. Law enforcement personnel linked bullets recovered during autopsies and at shooting scenes to guns discovered during the investigation and arrest searches, Duncan said.
All of the deceased and surviving victims of the shootings were “actual or perceived rival gang members,” she said.
Early trial testimony in Santa Maria provided details about how law enforcement officers linked the killings to the defendants, including wiretapping suspects’ phones and sifting through social media posts and texts.
— Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.