The fate of two Modesto men accused of murder stemming from a fight that broke out over gang graffiti, then escalated into a war of words and ended in a shooting, was in the hands of a Stanislaus County Superior Court jury Wednesday.
Jefte Garcia, 17, was shot in the right eye and right arm at about 7 p.m. Dec. 8, 2005, shortly after he spray-painted a big black line through a Norteño slogan on the sidewalk in front of his south Modesto home.
Brother Jair Garcia, also 17 at the time, called police to point the finger at a neighbor who was among the assailants, but he didn't live long enough to testify. He was killed in a gang-style shooting two months later.
Neighbor Kristian Sandoval, who loaned the assailants a sawed-off shotgun and watched a spray of pellets hit Jefte Garcia, took a plea deal, winning his freedom after two years behind bars, by testifying against his former friends.
Now, 12 jurors who heard four weeks of testimony must decide if crimes were committed by Pablo Lopez, 20, of Modesto, the alleged shooter, and Daniel Joseph Martinez, 22, who allegedly urged Lopez to pull the trigger.
Deputy District Attorney Thomas Brennan argued that Lopez and Martinez are cold-blooded killers who chose their fate when they adopted a kill or be killed lifestyle.
"There should be zero doubt in your minds that this is a gang-motivated crime, starting off with the graffiti on the sidewalk," he said in his closing argument.
Defense: Tragedy, not murder
Defense attorneys urged jurors to remember that the young men live in a world where drive-by shootings are a fact of life.
Attorney Martin Baker said his client, Lopez, has an imperfect self-defense claim because he took action after the Garcia brothers threatened to "smoke" him. He said the shooting is a tragedy, not a murder.
"Because of the gang tension, the history in this neighborhood, Mr. Lopez is in fact entitled to a greater right of self- defense," Baker said. "You should allow him a greater right to use self-defense.
Attorney William Miller said his client, Martinez, took part in an argument with the Garcias but did not shoot anyone, and did not conspire to shoot anyone, either.
"It's just senseless and stupid, and that's what we're stuck with," he said.
It all revolved around a gang slogan -- YGL X4 -- scribbled on the sidewalk.
According to authorities, that notation stands for Young Gangster Locos, with X4 standing for the 14th letter of the alphabet, a common symbol used by Norteños.
Most of the gang disputes in the region stem from an ongoing war between groups that affiliate with the Norteños, or northerners who prefer red, and the Sureños, or southerners who prefer blue.
According to the prosecutor, Lopez and Martinez claimed to be Norteños during several contacts with police, and Martinez had a prior conviction for a gang-style assault. He said the Garcia brothers appeared to associate with Sureño gang members, though they did not have criminal records.
Lopez and Martinez confronted Jefte Garcia, who recently had returned to Modesto from San Diego, as he crossed out the YGL X4 on the sidewalk in front of his home at 1310 Alamo Ave.
After a heated exchange, Lopez and Martinez went to Sandoval's house to get a gun, then confronted Garcia and his brother. According to the prosecutor, Sandoval, 23, told the jury that Martinez egged Lopez on, saying "just do it" before Lopez opened fire.
Jefte Garcia died later that night. His brother pointed authorities to Sandoval, who led police to Lopez, who was arrested two days later, and Martinez, who was arrested two months later.
Lopez and Martinez face life sentences if they are convicted of the murder of Jefte Garcia, the attempted murder of Jair Garcia and committing a crime for the benefit of the Norteño street gang.
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2338.