Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Murder Was ‘Natural and Probable’ Consequence of Gang Fight—SC
Justices, in 4-3 Ruling, Reinstate Convictions for Roles in Antelope Valley Killing
By Kenneth Ofgang , Staff Writer
Two gang members were properly convicted of aiding and abetting a fellow member’s killing of a member of another gang following a fistfight, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a 4-3 decision, the justices reversed a ruling by Div. Four of this district’s Court of Appeal. The court held that evidence of the gang’s hostility towards its enemies, its desire to expand its territory, and its willingness to use guns to settle scores supported a finding that the killing was a “natural and probable” consequence of the fistfight.
The decision reaffirms the convictions of George J. Marron and Raymond Vallejo. They were found guilty of murder and attempted murder as aiders and abettors of the shooter, Jose J. Medina, after Ernie Barba was shot to death while leaving the fight scene in his vehicle.
Marron, Vallejo and Medina were members of the Hawthorne-area Lil Watts gang.
Witnesses testified that Barba showed up at a party at a Lake Los Angeles home at about 11 p.m. on Jan. 2, 2004. When the defendants and others got up, and someone asked Barba where he was from, he replied, “Sanfer,” meaning the San Fernando gang.
Shooting Followed Fistfight
When Medina responded angrily, the owner of the house asked the parties to take their differences outside, where the fistfight raged between Barba and the defendants.
The homeowner, Manuel Ordenes, said he had a difficult time breaking up the fight, but eventually got Barba away from the defendants and walked him to his car. As Barba drove away, he was shot, fatally.
Jurors found Medina, Marron and Vallejo guilty—a fourth defendant was acquitted—and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William R. Pounders sentenced the three to 50 years to life in prison.
The Court of Appeal held that the non-shooters could not be guilty under the natural-and-probable-consequences doctrine because there was no evidence they knew Medina had a gun, that the fistfight was planned, that the gangs were engaged in an ongoing rivalry, or that Marron and Vallejo agreed to kill Barba, or aided in the killing.
But Justice Ming Chin, writing for the Supreme Court, said the Court of Appeal erred in “focusing on facts that were missing, rather than on the actual evidence presented.” The factors cited by the lower panel, he said, were not “an exhaustive list would that would exclude all other types and combinations of evidence that could support a jury’s finding of a foreseeable consequence,” the justice wrote.
Chin cited in particular the testimony of a gang expert who noted that gang members ask the question “where are you from?” to mean “what gang are you from?” with the anticipation that a fight—potentially involving lethal force— will break out if the person asking the question doesn’t like the answer.
The evidence, the justice said, showed that Lil Watts in particular was prone to violence, including the use of guns. The gang expert testified that members had been arrested for armed assaults, use of semiautomatic weapons, drive-by shootings, and gun-related homicides.
“Regarding this specific incident, Ordenes ordered the Lil Watts gang members outside because he was concerned that somebody would be killed,” Chin explained. “Thus, because Lil Watts members had challenged a rival gang member, the jury could reasonably have inferred that, in backing up that challenge, a Lil Watts member either would have been armed or would have or should have known a fellow gang member was or might be armed.”
Nor, Chin explained, did the lack of an ongoing rivalry between Lil Watts and Sanfer preclude a finding that a fight between members was likely to result in somebody being killed. He cited testimony that Lake Los Angeles was an area in which gangs, including Lil Watts and Sanfer, had members and were seeking to establish territory.
Chin was joined in his opinion by Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justices Marvin Baxter and Carol Corrigan.
Justice Carlos Moreno, joined by Justices Joyce L. Kennard and Kathryn M. Werdegar, argued in dissent that the Court of Appeal had viewed the evidence correctly, that Marron and Vallejo were not shown to have known that Medina was going to use a gun to resolve the fight, and that the majority was making too long a leap by treating a deadly attack as a likely, rather than merely possible, consequence of a gang member issuing a “where are you from?” challenge.
“Stripped to its essence, what the majority holds is that the challenge ‘Where are you from?’ is so provocative in the context of gang culture that any response up to and including murder is a reasonably foreseeable consequence of that utterance, so as to justify a murder conviction not only of the actual perpetrator but also of any other gang members involved in the target offense, whatever the surrounding circumstances,” the justice said. “I cannot subscribe to such an expansive interpretation of the natural and probable consequences doctrine even in the context of gang violence, which no one doubts is a plague upon some of our state’s most vulnerable communities.”
The case was argued in the Supreme Court by court-appointed attorneys John Steinberg of Berkeley for Marron and Mark D. Lenenberg of Simi Valley for Vallejo, and by Deputy Attorney General Mary Sanchez of Los Angeles for the prosecution.
The case is People v. Medina, 09 S.O.S. 3797.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company