MODESTO -- The grieving mother of a 17-year-old girl killed by stray gunfire at a Modesto park called her daughter's 2004 death a "cowardly" and "ignorant" act in court Tuesday.
Doing her best to hold back tears long enough to speak coherently, Manuela Ramirez explained the intent of her victim impact statement to convicted defendants Edgar Barajas and Jesus Rodriguez, whose motion for a new trial was denied.
"You're finding out the damage you caused us," Rivera said in Spanish, reading from a statement. A court interpreter translated her words.
Ernestina "Tina" DeJesus Tizoc was sitting on a bench in Oregon Park in Modesto's airport neighborhood when she was shot about 5:45 p.m. May 26, 2004. Authorities said she became the victim of gang retaliation because she wore a maroon blouse, similar to the red worn by Norteño gang members. The Johansen High junior was not a gang member, a gang expert testified in the trial.
Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan told the jury that the shooter, Barajas, and driver, Rodriguez, sought retaliation against rival Norteño gang members who had broken the windows in their white Chevrolet Blazer the night before. The gang expert testified that the defendants are Sureños.
It's been 14 months since a jury determined that Barajas, of Modesto, and Rodriguez, of Patterson, were responsible for Tina's murder.
The girl's mother insisted on facing the defendants while she read her statement, standing near the jury box in the courtroom. The defendants, wearing jail inmate jumpsuits and shackles, sat quietly in their seats behind their attorneys.
Ramirez said the most difficult thing for a mother to deal with is the death of a child, especially a daughter. She said Mother's Day and birthdays have been incredibly difficult.
"It's so sad to remember those tragic moments," Ramirez said about the day her daughter was killed. "I would like to believe this is all a dream, that once I wake up, my daughter is with me."
Before Ramirez spoke, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Nancy Ashley heard arguments about the defendants' motion for a new trial.
Robert Winston, Rodriguez's defense attorney, emphasized testimony from witness Jason Jones, who said he heard shots fired from the park and the white Chevrolet Blazer. At the time, Jones was a "shot caller," or Norteño gang leader, in the airport neighborhood. He was at the park when Tina was killed.
Defense theory 'rejected'
The defense's theory was that the teen was killed by gunfire from the park, fired by someone else in the direction of the Blazer. The attorneys argued Tuesday that Tina had an entrance wound on her right side, not her left side, which was facing the Blazer when the sport utility vehicle drove up.
"Not one person testified that she turned around," said Ernie Spokes, Barajas' attorney.
The prosecutor argued that the defense's theory is that Tina remained sitting in the same position while 16 to 20 shots were fired and chaos ensued around her.
"The jury of their peers soundly rejected the defense (theory)," Brennan argued.
Mario Garcia was one of five teenage boys in the Blazer. He testified that they were looking for revenge after a series of escalating attacks by Norteños.
Garcia testified against his buddies as part of a plea deal that helped him avoid murder charges. Federal immigration officials later deported him to Mexico for entering the country illegally.
Spokes argued that there was no independent corroborating testimony that indicated his client was responsible for Tina's death. "It was only the testimony of the snitch" that identified Barajas as the shooter, he said.
Ashley denied the motion for a new trial, saying there was sufficient evidence for the jury to determine the defendants were guilty. She scheduled them to return to court Sept. 4 to be sentenced.
The prosecutor has said the defendants each face a minimum sentence of 50 years to life in prison and a maximum of 100 years to life.
Barajas, 25, and Rodriguez, 24, were convicted of murder, committing the crime for a street gang, conspiracy to commit murder, using a gun and participating in a criminal street gang.
The case was stalled for nearly seven years because of numerous pretrial hearings, a key prosecution witness who left town and the judge delaying the start of the trial for fear potential jurors could have been tainted by a Bee story in November 2010 recounting the crime.
The defendants' sentencing hearing, initially scheduled for June 8, 2011, has been delayed several times. The district attorney's office prosecuted Barajas and Rodriguez as adults, although they were minors at the time of the shooting.
Two others accused of being passengers in the Blazer, Pedro Luis Castillo and Rigoberto Moreno, both of Modesto, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in May 2009 and were sent to prison for nine years and eight months each.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2394.