Attorneys argued that a lack of direct evidence connecting their clients to nine killings and other crimes should lead a Santa Maria Superior Court jury to find the five defendants not guilty, but the prosecuting attorney labeled the defense claims “ridiculousness.”
Closing arguments in the trial finished Thursday afternoon in Judge John McGregor’s courtroom, setting the stage for jurors to begin deliberations on Monday morning.
The five men face 41 charges in connection with nine homicides and attempts to kill 14 other people in the Santa Maria Valley plus Oxnard between mid-2015 and early 2016.
The five defendants and their gang monikers are: Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano (“Peligro”), Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres (“Silent”), Luis Mejia Orellana (“Smiley”), Tranquilino Robles Morales (“Bandit”) and Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno (“Psycho”).
Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen and colleague Peter Telesca used text messages, phone calls, cellphone location data, experts in firearms and gangs, and more to connect the defendants to the homicides of nine men and attempts to kill 14 others in the Santa Maria Valley and Oxnard.
Closing arguments by the five defense attorneys filled most of Thursday’s session.
“All the evidence in this case is circumstantial evidence,” said defense attorney Steve Balash, who represents Peligro.
He contended that much of the evidence could be considered opinions.
“We’re not here to form opinions. We’re here to determine facts,” he said.
Testimony during the trial included multiple text messages using code words such as “chicken” for victims and “soup” for killings.
During his closing arguments, Balash offered a quote from Humpty Dumpty in “Alice in Wonderland”: “’When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’”
In response to cellphone data showing defendants in the area of specific killings, several attorneys noted that their clients lived nearby and raised doubts about how precisely the records can pinpoint locations at the time of killings.
Attorney Chris Ames, who represents Smiley, said data in two instances encompassed the intersections of Broadway and Main Street and Broadway and Bettervia Road, suggesting his client could have been somewhere else, such as a coffee shop or restaurant.
He also raised doubts about the flurry of phone calls that prosecutors noted before and after the killings, contending that several factors linked the defendants — they came from Central America, worked in the farm fields and, in some cases, were related.
“Let’s remember, though, the prosecution didn’t provide any context to these phone calls. We don’t know what they were about, so let’s not infer,” Ames said.
Attorney Stephen Dunkle, who represented “Silent,” reminded jurors that when the circumstantial evidence leads to a conclusion suggesting innocence or guilt, the panel must choose innocence.
“When we’re talking about tower data showing someone is basically in the middle of Santa Maria … there’s clearly more than one possibility why they’re in the middle of Santa Maria at that time,” Dunkle said about cellphone data.
Saying “the absence of evidence is not evidence,” Dunkle and other defense attorneys contended that the prosecution presented no direct evidence such as eyewitness testimony, fingerprints, DNA or video to place their clients at the scenes.
“Association with others in this case does not equal intent to kill,” attorney Andrew Jennings said.
He represented the defendant known as “Bandit.”
“You’ve seen evidence where Mr. Morales and others in this case are together, talking at various points in this case,” Jennings said, echoing other defense attorneys in saying jurors need to “look at levels of involvement or lack thereof and level of culpability.”
Attorney Adrian Andrade called upon jurors to assess if the evidence exists to prove his clients’s involvement and intent for the crimes.
“Consider this: They came to his house and Mr. Membreno had no weapons, no ammunition, no intent,” Andrade said of law enforcement officers before urging jurors to evaluate the evidence individually.
In her rebuttal, Bramsen labeled several of the defense attorneys’ contentions as “ridiculousness” and told jurors to look at the overall evidence in context.
“That’s what circumstantial evidence is — with everything together, what’s the reasonable conclusion?” Bramsen said.
She noted that the defense attorneys presented unreasonable explanations for various facets of the case, such as that a gun found at the residence shared by two defendants and linked to three killings had been used by someone else.
The defendants’ phones revealed searches for news articles about some of the shootings, which a defense attorney tried to downplay.
“And then he just searches for articles, what, because he likes to keep up on crime? And they just happen to be gang murders that his gang members did that he’s involved in? Ridiculousness,” Bramsen said.
She called for the jury to provide accountability for the crimes.
“These serial killers terrorized our community. They killed nine people. They wanted to kill 14 more. They are absolutely guilty of what they wanted to do and what they did do,” Bramsen said.
Jurors will begin deliberations on Monday morning, but the wait for a verdict could take awhile because of the complexity of the case along with the number of defendants and charges.
The defendants have been charged with the killings of rival gang members or those suspected to having ties to a rival gang. The victims were: Oscar Joaquin, 17, Brayan Mejia Molina, 18, Ulises Garcia-Mendez, 17, Modesto Melendez, 25, Augustin Jamie Montano-Barajas, 29, Donacio Morales Suarez (Alexis Morales), 25, Javier Murillo-Sanchez, 23, Aaron Hernandez Sanchez, 23, and Abrahan Rojas Najera, 21.
The men were arrested in March 2016 in the Santa Maria police-led Operation Matador after a spike in homicides in the city. In the weeks leading up to the arrest, police officers intercepted phone calls and prevented at least six intended targets from getting killed.
After the arrest, the flurry of killings, notable by the extreme violence associated with MS-13 and involving several instances of double homicide, calmed down.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.