Two trials will take place to accommodate 10 defendants charged in connection with multiple homicides allegedly linked to the violent MS-13 criminal gang after the state rejected a funding request from the Santa Maria Superior Court to modify a courtroom.
Judge John McGregor on Friday confirmed the change in plans during a hearing for the men. They face multiple felony charges allegedly linked to a violent international criminal gang known as MS-13.
The defendants have been accused of committing 10 homicides and multiple attempted murders in the Santa Maria Valley.
Initially arrested in March 2016 as part of Operation Matador, the defendants later were indicted by a Santa Barbara County Grand Jury.
To accommodate the large number of participants — now 10 defendants, 10 defense attorneys, several prosecutors, interpreters and investigators — court officials intended to renovate the largest courtroom at the Santa Maria Court Complex. However, the California Judicial Council declined to fulfill the funding request in November.
“The trial court has been informed by court administration that the funds necessary to modify Departments 6 or 8 to allow for all 10 defendants to be tried at once are not available,” McGregor said.
Court Executive Officer Darrel Parker said the work had been estimated at $350,000 to $500,000.
“I don’t have the resources,” he told Noozhawk after the funding request’s rejection.
Additionally, the Santa Maria Juvenile Court, the site of the last large multiple defendant trial, won’t be available for this case, McGregor said.
Even a scaled-down version of the courtroom modification project didn’t end up being financially feasible, and defense attorneys objected to having clients seated in the audience areas and having limited seating for their families.
Defense attorneys had raised procedural due process concerns about whether their clients could receive a fair and impartial trial.
“Based upon the reality of the situation and the objection of counsel in the previously filed motion, the court finds that it would violate defendants’ due process trial rights to place defendants in the audience to allow 10 defendants for a unitary trial,” McGregor said. “The facilities’ limitations require that this case be divided into two parts.”
During Friday’s hearing, the judge also scrapped the planned trial start date of Feb. 18 and instead said the trial for the first five defendants would begin April 13.
The first group to stand trial will be defendants Luis Mejia Orellana, represented by attorney Chris Ames; Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres with attorney Stephen Dunkle; Tranquilino Robles Morales, represented by attorney Andrew Jennings; Juan Carlos Serrano Urbina with attorney Steve Balash; and Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno with attorney Adrian Andrade.
Attorneys had expected the trial to last at least a year, or up to 18 months.
With that timeline in mind, the other five defendants and attorneys took the unusual step to waive their right to a speedy trial for a longer-than-normal time through October 2021.
They and their attorneys are Jose Ricardo Lainez, represented by attorney Billy Redell; Jose Juan Sanchez Torres, with attorney Jeff Chambliss; Jose Balmore Saravia Lainez, represented by Ron Bobo; Olvin Serrano, represented by attorney William Davis; and Jose Narciso Escobar Hernandez, represented by attorney Michael Carty.
However, the judge formally relieved Carty from the case at his request because of health reasons and appointed Meghan Behrens to replace him.
The prosecution team involves Ann Bramsen, Kelly Duncan and Peter Telesca of the District Attorney’s Office.
The defendants have been charged with the killings of Oscar Joaquin, 17, Brayan Mejia Molina, 18, Ulises Garcia-Mendez, 17, Modesto Melendez, 25, Michel Raygoza Hernandez, 24, Augustin Jamie Montano-Barajas, 29, Donacio Morales Suarez (Alexis Morales), 25, Javier Murillo-Sanchez, 23, Aaron Hernandez Sanchez, 23, and Abrahan Rojas Najera, 21.
While most of the slayings occurred in 2015 and early 2016, one dates back to 2013, according to the criminal indictment.
The July 2016 indictments handed by the grand jury originally involved 12 defendants, but one man has since taken a plea deal and the second is awaiting sentencing after changing his plea to guilty in a federal homicide case in Ohio. That case also is linked to killings allegedly involving MS-13 gang activity.