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Saturday, 28 May 2011

the biggest gang trial in San Jose in years, a jury Friday found four Norteños guilty


07:57 | ,

the biggest gang trial in San Jose in years, a jury Friday found four Norteños guilty of a murderous rampage that took four lives and severely injured eight people, ending a nearly yearlong proceeding that cost taxpayers more than $1 million -- and entailed so many charges the verdict took 95 minutes to read aloud.
The outcome was a victory for prosecutor Stacey Capps and San Jose detectives, who invested nearly five years in bringing to justice one of the leaders of the El Hoyo Palmas gang and his hit squad of three young men.
"I told my wife, 'We're taking some really dangerous people off the street -- forever,' '' lead Detective Sean Pritchard said shortly before the verdicts were read.
The gangsters set out to avenge the killing of two associates by rival Sureños by indiscriminately shooting virtually anyone who happened to cross their path at the wrong time during a four-month period ending in early 2007.
Dressed in black pants, sweatshirts and caps, the gangsters carried out their killing "missions," as they called them, in East and West San Jose. Among the victims of the 11 separate shooting incidents was locksmith Hernan Koba, who was merely trying to open someone's car door when he was robbed of $1 and shot dead.
"We're happy about the verdict,'' Koba's brother Danny said after the hearing. "But it's still hard.''
"It won't bring our brother back," his brother Sergio Koba agreed.
The jury of eight women and four men took about seven days to reach a decision after listening to the lawyers present evidence for more than four months. The case began last spring with months of pretrial motions, and was so detailed it generated 875 exhibits.
Dedicated jurors
The whole affair, including evidence of the gang's obsession with palm-tree motifs and its cavalier attitude toward killing, was an eye-opener for some jurors.
"The areas in which the crimes happened surprised me,'' one said in an interview after the trial. "I hate to say it, but we know about the east side. But now we're looking at the west side, and I thought, 'I think I shop there,' and that was unsettling."
Judge Arthur Bocanegra commended the jurors for their dedication: None were ever late or called in sick in more than 18 weeks. The jury also maintained its cool in the face of what law enforcement viewed as a possible threat by the gang. A few young men dressed in gang attire snapped pictures of some jurors as they were leaving the courthouse, frightening them. Security was heightened.
Security remained heavy Friday, with five armed bailiffs standing guard as the court clerk took the witness stand to read some 150 pages of verdicts, including the penal code numbers of each offense. The number of charges varied per defendant, with 15 total. But the verdict took so long because each charge carried either gang or gun enhancements or, in the case of the murder charges, the choice of first- or second-degree, and special circumstances, including multiple killings.
Dead to rights
The jury found the men guilty of every single charge, concluding that Gene "Shorty" Sanchez directed a hit squad of three young men: Samuel "Rico" Castro, Michael "Negro" Espana and Orlando "Gangster" Rojas, who was 17 at the time but was prosecuted as an adult. All were charged with conspiring to commit murder, and the alleged hit squad members are also charged with multiple counts of murder and attempted murder.
All four gang members maintained poker faces as the verdicts were read. Sanchez faces a maximum sentence of life in prison, and the three other men face life in prison without the possibility of parole. Sentencing was set for July 22.
The evidence against them included cellphone records, ballistics tests, informants' testimony and self-incriminating statements the defendants made in letters and in recorded conversations from jail. But the clincher of Capps' case was an eyewitness account from a virtually unimpeachable source -- a San Jose police officer who witnessed the final homicide, just a few days after police put the gang under surveillance.
Expensive prosecution
Santa Clara County Superior Court spent $200,000 to transform a dingy courtroom into a cavernous, high-tech venue for the trial, which originally involved 13 alleged members of the notorious, multigenerational El Hoyo Palmas street gang. But the courtroom proved unnecessary after the number of defendants shrunk and the judge wound up splitting the case into two separate trials.
The first half of the case also has cost taxpayers more than $1 million in legal defense costs and fees for the indigent gang members, including more than $100,000 just for printing expenses. That's because there were 77 binders of information for each of the four defense attorneys.
The second phase, which begins in August, could cost nearly as much.


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