A sentencing hearing in a deadly Modesto home-invasion robbery was postponed Friday, because the judge wants more information before deciding whether a defendant gets a new defense attorney.
Jaime Cerpa, 33, faces a maximum sentence of 80 years to life in prison for his role in the botched 2010 robbery. Authorities have said the robbery attempt was carried out by a Norteño street gang regiment that was looking for drugs and cash but targeted the wrong victims.
Cerpa initially was scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 28 along with his co-defendants. But his defense attorney, Alonzo Gradford, was not able to attend last week’s hearing, which spurred Cerpa to ask the court for a new attorney.
Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Marie Silveira ordered Gradford to provide the court with a reason for his absence. Gradford could be charged with being in contempt of court if he doesn’t show good cause for failing to attend last week’s hearing.
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Friday morning, the judge dealt with Cerpa’s request for a new lawyer. The judge cleared the courtroom for a Marsden hearing, in which the defendant has a chance to explain why he wants a new attorney. The prosecutor is not allowed to attend the hearing, which is held behind closed doors.
Courtroom doors remained closed for about 45 minutes. Silveira then said she wanted to wait for more information on both issues before making a decision. She postponed the hearing until Monday.
If Cerpa gets a new attorney, it could be a long time before he’s sentenced. A new attorney would need time to get up to speed with the case and would be given an opportunity to file a motion for a new trial before the sentencing can take place.
Cerpa and his co-defendants, Phillip Lopez, Angel Del Villar and Hector Rocha Jr., were found guilty of murder, home-invasion robbery and robbery on Feb. 8, 2013. Last week, Lopez, Del Villar and Rocha were sentenced to 80 years to life in prison.
The robbers thought they were hitting a notorious drug house, but the dealers had moved out and the cash and drugs were not there, according to authorities. Testimony indicated the robbers confronted five victims, including Julio Jimenez, who was shot in the back three times as he pleaded for mercy.
Modesto police gang investigator Sean Martin testified that the Norteño regiment was linked to about 20 other robberies in the region. He said the March 24, 2010, home-invasion robbery was the first time one of its robberies resulted in a death.
The jury of seven women and five men deliberated for about two days before reaching a verdict. The jurors decided all of the defendants were guilty of murder, even though they didn’t fire the shots that killed Jimenez.
Domingo Becerra has admitted in court that he participated in the robbery and shot Jimenez after the victim tried to escape.
Becerra has agreed to a plea deal with a prison sentence of 25 years to life in exchange for his testimony against the others in this robbery and two other gang-related trials. He testified that his former fellow gang members have marked him for death and he is not confident he will survive, even in prison.
Two others, Daniel Flores and Aquiles Virgen, also testified in the trial against the other defendants in exchange for plea deals.