MODESTO — A jury Wednesday began deliberating in a murder trial against four purported Norteño gang members accused of a home-invasion robbery in Modesto that resulted in the shooting of a man as he pleaded for mercy.
Jaime Cerpa, Phillip Lopez, Angel Del Villar and Hector Rocha Jr. are being tried on charges of murder, home-invasion robbery and robbery. If convicted as charged, the defendants each face a maximum sentence of 50 years to life in prison.
The jurors, seven women and five men, started their deliberations shortly before 2:30 p.m. Wednesday. They had not reached a verdict by the end of the day and were expected to continue deliberating today.
The home-invasion robbery occurred March 24, 2010, at a house in the 600 block of Thrasher Avenue in Modesto's airport neighborhood. Domingo Becerra has admitted in court that he participated in the robbery and he shot Julio Jimenez in the back three times during the robbery.
Becerra testified that he and several other Norteños were looking for drugs and cash from what he believed was a drug house on Thrasher. The drug dealers had moved out, and the robbers never found what they were after.
In exchange for his testimony against his alleged accomplices, Becerra received a plea deal from prosecutors that will result in a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
Alonzo Gradford, Cerpa's defense attorney, concluded his closing argument Wednesday by directing the jury's attention to Becerra's initial statements to investigators shortly after the robbery. He immediately started implicating his alleged accomplices, but Gradford argued that Becerra never indicated that Cerpa helped plan the robbery or assisted anyone in committing the robbery.
"He's not involved," Gradford told the jury about his client. "He's not a big shot."
After three years incarcerated and negotiating a plea deal, Becerra changed his story and testified that Cerpa provided guns for the robbery and pulled clothing from his closet to disguise the robbers, the defense attorney said.
"Becerra is fighting for his deal," Gradford argued. "He's fighting for the ability to live out the rest of his life in Oklahoma."
Targeted for death
If he testifies truthfully in three trials involving alleged Norteño gang activity, Becerra's plea deal guarantees he can serve his sentence in an Oklahoma prison. Becerra has told the jury that he's targeted for death for testifying against his former fellow gang members.
Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan told jurors that Becerra from the beginning led investigators to find crucial evidence, such as security camera footage and guns used in the robbery, that corroborated his testimony.
Two others, Aquiles Virgen and Daniel Flores, testified that they participated in the robbery and implicated the defendants. They also received plea deals in exchange for their testimony.
In his rebuttal argument Wednesday, Brennan said the defense attorneys have claimed their clients are innocent because all the prosecution witnesses perjured themselves, or they were forced by gang leaders to commit the robbery, or that Becerra shot Jimenez for reasons that had nothing to do with the robbery.
The prosecutor told the jury the defense arguments were "ridiculous" and made "zero sense." He said Becerra faces the death penalty if he lies on the witness stand, and heavily armed gang members cannot claim they were forced to commit a crime.
Brennan also argued that Becerra shot Jimenez after the victim tried to escape over a fence, which happened right after Rocha fired shots into the home's ceiling. He argued that Jimenez thought he was going to shot next, so he tried to run to safety.
"This is not a close call," Brennan told the jury about their decision. "This is not a complex case."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.